Nuts have long been the poster food for heart health, but are they just as effective at reducing the risk of diseases such as cancer and stroke? According to researchers in the UK and Norway, the answer is yes. What's more, a little goes a long way: all you need is a handful each day to significantly lower your risk of these diseases.
While there has been a growing body of research on the impact of nut consumption on coronary heart disease, there has been little mention of its impact on the risk of stroke or cancer. Hence researchers from Imperial College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology decided to analyze 29 published studies from around the world to see if they could find data to support the association between nut consumption and disease risk, as well as less common causes of death. This involved 819,000 participants, including more than 12,000 cases of coronary heart disease, 9,000 cases of stroke, 18,000 cases of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and more than 85,000 deaths.
The results of this analysis revealed nuts to be a real disease-fighting powerhouse. "We found a consistent reduction in risk across many different diseases, which is a strong indication that there is a real underlying relationship between nut consumption and different health outcomes," says study co-author Dagfinn Aune. "It's quite a substantial effect for such a small amount of food."
Previous research had established that those who ate just a handful of nuts (around 20 grams) a day could slash their risk of coronary heart disease by nearly 30 percent, compared to those who did not eat them at all. The findings of the new analysis now reveals that these subjects also lowered their risk of cancer by 15 percent and their risk of dying prematurely of any cause by 22 percent. It also suggested that the same amount might reduce the risk of dying from respiratory disease and diabetes by close to 50 and 40 percent respectively, though researchers note that there is less data about these diseases than the others.
The study found that both tree nuts, such as hazel nuts and walnuts, and peanuts - which are actually legumes – were associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. However only the intake of peanuts was linked to reduced risk of stroke, while the intake of tree nuts was associated with reduced cancer risk.
For those who count nuts among their favorite snacks, the findings of this study should come as no surprise, given that they are a good source of fiber, magnesium, and polyunsaturated fats, all of which help to lower cardiovascular disease risk and cholesterol levels.
"Some nuts, particularly walnuts and pecan nuts are also high in antioxidants, which can fight oxidative stress and possibly reduce cancer risk," says Aune. "Even though nuts are quite high in fat, they are also high in fiber and protein, and there is some evidence that suggests nuts might actually reduce your risk of obesity over time."
That said, as healthful as they might be, the analysis also found that eating more than 20g of nuts a day did not bring about a corresponding increase in health benefits.
Regardless, one thing is clear: unless you have an allergy, you should probably start making them a part of your day, if you haven't already. And with Christmas just around the corner, it's a good excuse to add a pecan pie to your dessert table.