Researchers Find a Handful of Nuts a Day Could Lower Your Heart Disease Risk

Researchers Find a Handful of Nuts a Day Could Lower Your Heart Disease Risk

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  • New research finds that eating nuts regularly may lower your risk of heart disease.

  • It joins a large body of research supporting nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet.

  • Experts say nuts shouldn’t be the only way you combat your heart disease risk.

New research has found that adding a small amount of nuts to your diet can help support good heart health.

The study, which was published in the journal Food Nutrition Research, analyzed data from 42 scientific papers that included 1.8 million people and found that eating a handful of nuts daily can lower the risk of heart disease by about 25%. The researchers also found that, while nuts lowered the amount of fat in the blood, they didn’t seem to impact blood pressure or blood sugar.

This isn’t the first study to tie nuts to a lowered risk of heart disease. A study of nearly 193,000 people published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2020 found that people who ate nuts on a regular basis had a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke compare to those who didn’t eat nuts. “These data support the role of nut intake in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease,” the researchers wrote.

Research from some of the largest cohort studies, including the Adventist Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Physicians’ Health Study have also consistently shown that people who eat nuts several times a week have a 30 to 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease or sudden cardiac death than those who don’t.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even allowed some nuts, including macadamia nuts and pecans, to carry a label that suggests they can support good heart health.

But why might nuts be helpful for good heart health, and how can you add them to your diet? Here’s what you need to know.

Why might eating nuts help your heart?

Heart disease is a complicated illness and it’s difficult to pin your risk on developing it just on nuts, says lead study author Erik Arnesen, a researcher at the University of Oslo. Still, he says, nuts may be able to help support good heart health.

“It is true that heart disease has several risk factors, but almost all of them—about 90 %—are so-called ‘modifiable’ factors, meaning that the potential for prevention is huge,” he says. “Of biological risk factors, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are the main causes for myocardial infarction, and we know that these to a large extent are related to diet and lifestyle.”

Nuts have several nutrients that can be helpful for heart health including unsaturated fatty acids that are linked to lower levels of cholesterol in the blood, Arnesen says. “Adding nuts to the diet has been shown in clinical trials to lower cholesterol, and this may explain at least partly why people who regularly eat nuts have a lower risk,” he says.

Overall dietary habits matter, too, when it comes to heart disease risk, Arnesen says. “It is best to include nuts in the diet as a replacement for less healthy and less nutrient-dense foods and snacks,” he says. “If you only add nuts on top of a diet with a lot of junk food and sweets, you will likely not get any healthier.”

Holly S. Andersen, M.D., attending cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, says she’s “not surprised” by the latest findings. “Study after study has shown that eating a variety of nuts is good for your heart,” she says. “Nuts have a favorable unsaturated to saturated fat ratio and contain fiber, folic acid, magnesium, phytosterols, and tocopherols—all felt to be cardio-protective.”

Nuts also have a good amount of fiber, points out Rigved Tadwalkar, M.D., a board certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “That can improve blood sugar control and promote healthy digestion,” he says. “They have a lot of micronutrients that are linked with lower inflammatory response and oxidative stress.”

But doctors stress that nuts alone aren’t going to dramatically alter your heart disease risk. “I often remind people that the genesis of heart disease is often multifactorial,” Dr. Tadwalkar says. “The consumption of nuts will not be sufficient to combat the risk of heart disease in and of itself, but can be used in a heart healthy diet. That should also be coupled with other things we know are healthy for the heart, including a regular exercise regimen and managing health conditions correctly.”

What kind of nuts are best?

The researchers in this study didn’t break things down by type of nuts, but noted that almonds, pistachios, and walnuts seemed to be the best at lowering cholesterol, which can contribute to a healthier heart.

However, the American Heart Association (AHA) lists the following nuts as “healthier choices”:

  • almonds

  • hazelnuts

  • peanuts

  • pecans

  • pistachios

  • walnuts

How to add more nuts to your diet for heart health

While nuts can be an important part of a heart-healthy diet, it’s crucial not to overboard with them. “Overindulgence in anything is bad,” says Ashok Chaudhary, M.D., an interventional cardiologist at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “We want nuts to be part of a balanced diet. You want to have a good proportion of carbohydrates, proteins, and energy-rich foods, and nuts would be a part of that.” Having too many nuts in your diet can lead to weight gain, “which could increase cardiovascular risks,” Dr. Chaudhary says.

(The AHA notes that a serving size of nuts is 1.5 ounces of whole nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter, and also suggests that you choose nut butters with the lowest amounts of sodium and ideally with no added tropical oils or sugars.)

If you're not getting many (or any) nuts in your diet right now, Jessica Cording, R.D., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers, recommends doing the following to increase your nut intake:

  • Sprinkle nuts over a salad for added crunch.

  • Add a few nuts on top of soup for texture.

  • Blend nut butter into smoothies for protein.

  • Spread nut butter over apples.

And, of course, if you’re concerned about your heart disease risk, it’s best to talk to your doctor about personalized steps you can take to be as healthy as possible.

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