A handful of walnuts a day does as much good to your heart as a daily dose of cholesterol-lowering medicines called statins, concluded a new study that immediately put flavour back in the lives of people watching their cholesterol and weight.
Eating fresh vegetables, nuts (primarily walnuts), and olive oil halve your chances of having a stroke and lowers risk of heart attack by 30% when compared to an overall low-fat diet, reported the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month. So conclusive were the findings in favour of the “fresh food and nuts” diet that researchers cut the study short and ended the trial early.
The data came from the Spanish Ministry of Health-funded PREDIMED (PREvención con DIeta MEDiterranea) trial, one of the world’s largest and longest multicentre studies that tracked 7,447, aged between 55 and 80, with high risk of heart disease and stroke for an average of 4.8 years. They were broken up into three groups and given one of three intervention diets — low-fat diet (control group), Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil (50 ml per day), or a Med diet supplemented with 30 g mixed nuts per day (15 gm walnuts, 7.5 gm almonds and 7.5 gm hazelnuts). The nutty diet came up tops, followed by a Med diet with extra-virgin olive oil.
Studies in the past have also shown that a Mediterranean diet along with 40 minutes of a normal-to-intense exercise lowers risk of death over a five-year period (Archives of Internal Medicine).
The Med diet celebrates mono and poly-unsaturated fats and insists that nuts — once shunned for being high in fat and calories — actually help people lose weight and keep it off.
“In addition to being the only nut containing significant amounts of alpha-linolenic acid — the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid — walnuts have nutrients that strengthen the innermost lining of the arteries called the endothelium, all of which lower the risk of heart attack and stroke,” said Dr R R Kasliwal, chairman, Clinical and Preventive Cardiology, Medanta.
Research over the last 15 years strongly suggests that everyone’s diet should include nuts, even though 30 gm (roughly 1/4 cup) of nuts provides 160 to 200 calories. A Harvard study found people lost more weight on a moderate-fat nut diet than on a low-fat diet that kept fat calories below 30% of the total calories intake. Dieters in a Harvard study who got 35% of their calories from healthy fats and nuts were three times more likely to keep the weight off than those who ate a diet with just 20% fat calories.
“Nuts are very high in fibre and help people stick to diets better by discouraging snacking than fat-free foods that are high in carbohydrates,” says nutritionist Rekha Sharma.
Unsaturated fats are the healthy oils and include both polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats, found mostly in vegetable oils, lower both blood cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels — especially when you substitute them for saturated fats found in meat, poultry skin, dairy and vegetable oils that solidify at room temperature, such as coconut, butter and palm oils — and artery-clogging trans fats found in packaged food.
Polyunsaturated fat is full of heart-protecting omega-3 fatty acids and is found in fatty fish (tuna, sardines, salmon, trout, catfish, mackerel), as well as flaxseed and walnuts. Monounsaturated fats — olive, mustard, canola, peanut, walnut, soybean and flaxeed — typically liquid at room temperature but solidify if refrigerated and are also high in antioxidant vitamin E.
Eat fish at least once a week
Whether curried, grilled, sautéed or baked, have as much fish as possible. Women who ate fish at least once a week were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or die of heart disease than those who ate fish only once a month, reported Journal of the American Medical Association. Other studies show similar benefits for men. Another major study found eating fish regularly reduced the risk of atrial fibrillation — rapid, irregular heartbeat — a major cause of sudden death.
Wine is fine
Red wine, in “moderation” — not more than a couple of glasses a day with meals — helps protect the lining of blood vessels and prevents blood clots in people on Mediterranean diets, showed the Spanish study. But whatever you do, do not have more than a glass or two with a meal. Apart from liver damage, binge drinking — drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above (5 or more drinks for men, and 4 or more drinks for women at a sitting) — raises blood pressure and increases you risk of heart attack and stroke.