We already knew nuts were pretty good for us. This week we learned that people who regularly consumed nuts are less likely to die of cancer or heart disease, according to a major study by Harvard University researchers.

The study reviewed people’s eating habits over a 30-year time span, making it the longest look at the health effects of eating nuts, and found that those who ate nuts regularly were 20 percent less likely to die of any cause over the study period.

Nuts

Cover all the bases with mixed nuts. (Photo: GRN)

(Already convinced? Scroll down to see our list of nuts and their health benefits.)

Of the 115,000 men and women in the study, those who ate nuts every day were 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 11 percent less likely to die of cancer during the study period, compared with those who didn’t eat nuts. Those who ate some nuts also had an improved health profile over those who shunned them. The benefits conferred by nuts appeared to apply to all types of nuts, salted and unsalted; participants weren’t directed to eat specific types of nuts, according to the study, published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Those who were nuts for nuts also stayed slimmer, defying the concerns about nuts being full of fat and calories. The researchers acknowledged that the study could only prove a correlation between those who at nuts and better health, because other factors could have come into play. Nut eaters, for example, also ate more fruits and vegetables, proven to create a healthier diet.

But the researchers said that after they corrected for other variables, it remained clear that nuts — almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, pecans, Brazil nuts and walnuts – provide a strong health benefit. Other studies have found that nuts are heart-healthy and lower one’s risk of diabetes, reduce cholesterol levels and inflammation. Scientists believe the benefits originate with the Omega oils, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in nuts.

Squirrel in Wash Sq Park

He knows something. (Photo: GRN)

So go nuts! Except don’t eat too many, say the experts at the Mayo clinic, because they are high in fat, albeit good fat. All nuts are best eaten raw or dry roasted, the health nuts say.  (Although the study group did eat them salted).

Here are a few specifics about our nutty friends, and their special properties.

  • Almonds, one of our favorites, have been found to have anti-cancer properties, in part because they are high in Vitamin E (1 ounce of almonds contains about a third of your daily requirement). One study found that almonds helped male smokers in Finland lower their lung cancer risk by about 20 percent. Almonds also are a good source of calcium and among nuts, they’re tops in providing fiber. Like all nuts, they’re heart healthy, and experts advise eating them with their skins on to get the highest levels of heart-healthy flavonoids.
  • Cashews, which like almonds and peanuts make a great nut butter, are higher than other nuts in iron, making them a good choice for anyone with anemia issues or vegetarians. Their secret ingredients, zinc and magnesium, confer special benefits. Zinc is believed to help keep eyes healthy, and magnesium is believed to help protect cognition and memory as people age.
  • Walnuts are king when it comes to Omega-3 fatty acids, the “good oils” that help your body fight the inflammation that leads to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Vegans, who won’t get Omega-3s from fish, will benefit greatly if they keep walnuts on their radar.
  • Pecans are heart-healthy and studies have found that they lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. (The studies, however, did not look at the benefits of pecan pie.)
  • Brazil nuts provide us with all the selenium we need, in just a couple nuts! For that reason, scientists think they may be potent cancer preventers, helping stop prostate cancer. They also warn not to eat too many because selenium in high doses can be harmful. Selenium also supports the thyroid, making Brazil nuts a good choice for people with low thyroid function. Vegetarians also may want to put these nuts on the menu because selenium can best be found in seafood, turkey and lamb meat.
  • Peanuts are technically a legume, but they are rich in vitamins like their tree nut cousins. Peanuts are often cited as a healthy source of folate, which is necessary for proper neurological development, which is why it’s included in prenatal vitamins. But there’s more, peanuts also provide manganese, which helps regulate metabolism, and copper, which has been found to help keep cholesterol levels in check. In fact, protein-rich peanuts have long been used by athletes and others as a blood sugar stabilizer, because they slow sugar absorption and like other nutrient-rich nuts, they help people achieve satiety. One study found that peanut butter, when substituted for one serving of red meat, helped reduce the risk of diabetes. Another found that eating peanuts twice a week reduced by more than half the risk of colon cancer. (See both of these cited in an excellent piece all about peanuts in Cooking Light.) Finally, the humble peanut is a vegetarian’s best friend, offering B vitamins, protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, all in an affordable package.

So with the holidays coming you know you’ll be spending time with your crazy uncle (aunt/cousin/parents/children). You might as well both sit near the nut dish. Salud!