A handful of nuts a day...

New adage. A handful of nuts a day keeps the doctor away—and May indeed help you live longer, according to new results from two long-running Harvard studies.

The report, in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that people that ate nuts daily were less likely to die of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. Overall, nut-eaters were 20% less likely to have died during the course of the study than those who avoided nuts. (Peanuts, which are actually legumes, counted as nuts in this study). “We found that people who ate nuts every day lived longer, healthier lives than people who didn’t eat nuts,” said study co-author Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

120,000 people participated in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Physicians Health Study. All answered questions about their diets at the beginning of the studies in the 1980s and then every two to four years during 30 years of follow-up. The participants were separated into six categories that ranged from never eating nuts to eating them seven or more times per week. The more often people ate nuts, the lower their risk of premature death.

According to Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the findings echo those of earlier studies. He highlighted research at the American Heart Association meeting in Dallas, Texas. “Eating nuts lowers LDL (“bad” cholesterol), raises HDL (“good” cholesterol) and also lowers blood pressure and blood pressure responses to stress,” said Dr. Kris-Etherton. Her research also shows that eating nuts helps boost a process called reverse cholesterol transport, by which HDL particles in the blood sweep away fatty plaque from clogged arteries. It showed that the composition of nuts—fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals—may provide “cardioprotective, anticarcinogenic, antiinflammatory, and antioxidant properties.”

There are those that are worried that eating nuts might contribute to weight gain. This study, among others showed that frequent nut eaters were less likely to gain weight. “Nuts are high in protein and fiber, which delays absorption and decreases hunger,” said Dr. Hu, and added that nuts contain mostly unsaturated healthy fats.

The health benefits hold true for a variety of nuts, including walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and pistachios, so eat your favorite. Or, as Kris-Etherton recommends, try mixed nuts. She offered the following tips for making nuts part of your regular diet:

  • spread nut butter on your morning toast instead of butter or cream cheese
  • sprinkle chopped nuts on cereal or yogurt
  • toss nuts into a salad or stir-fry
  • top fruit or crackers with nut butter
  • try nut-crusted fish or chicken, such as pecan-crusted trout.