Kendall/Nutrition Column – Nuts Get Health Claim for Helping Reduce Heart Disease Risk

Here’s some good news for nut lovers: The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a qualified health claim for nuts, saying that eating 11/2 ounces of most nuts may reduce the risk of heart disease when they’re part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. The new health claim is a "qualified" one, meaning that the FDA evaluated the data and determined that, "though there is scientific evidence to support the claim, the evidence is not conclusive."

Many of the studies showing nuts’ heart-healthy benefits are relatively new, but most have found higher nut consumption to be associated with lower risk of heart disease. Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts are included in the new claim. A 11/2-once serving of almonds, for example, is high in vitamin E and magnesium and offers protein, fiber, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and iron in 246 calories. Almonds and other nuts also provide various phytochemicals, which are plant components that may provide protection against heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases.

Most recently, a study conducted at the University of Toronto and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that eating a certain dietary plan high in heart-healthy foods, including almonds, was just as effective in lowering LDL-cholesterol levels (the so-called bad cholesterol) as taking statin drugs designed specifically to lower LDL-cholesterol. Dr. David Jenkins, the project director, recently spoke about the study at the Lillian Fountain Smith Conference for Nutrition Educators in Fort Collins. According to Jenkins, the study directly compared three randomized groups of patients who had high cholesterol. One group ate according to the National Cholesterol Education Program’s Step 2 diet, which is a very low-saturated fat diet based on whole-wheat cereals and low-fat dairy foods. Another group followed the Step 2 diet and took a 20 milligram dose of lovastatin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, each day. The third group ate according to the Portfolio eating plan, a low-saturated fat diet that includes known heart-healthy foods, such as almonds, beans, barley, oat bran, okra, eggplant and soy protein, that are high in plant sterols and vegetable protein as well as viscous fiber.

For the statin and Portfolio groups, the drop in LDL, or bad, cholesterol was comparable, with a 31 percent drop for the statin group and a 29 percent drop for the Portfolio group. The Step 2 group only had an 8 percent drop. "For the most part, research on dietary changes has resulted in only modest reductions in cholesterol, and diet has been considered by some as relatively ineffective," Jenkins said. "But this research has shown that combining known heart-healthy foods into one eating plan resulted in a diet that was just as effective as the starting dose of statin in lowering LDL-cholesterol. These results support the recommendations of the Adult Treatment Panel III guidelines that dietary intervention should be the first line of therapy for high cholesterol." For more information on the Portfolio plan, visit

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of all American adults have cholesterol levels higher than they should be. For someone not needing a dramatic reduction in LDL cholesterol level but merely a moderate drop or to maintain a healthy heart, substituting even some of the known heart-healthy foods in the diet each day may help. One way to start is to choose a snack of almonds or peanuts instead of popcorn, pretzels or potato chips. For breakfast, have oatmeal or oat cereal instead of a donut or sweet roll. For lunch, try a soy burger instead of a regular burger. Whatever your choice, calories do count, so remember the words, "Instead of."

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension