The American Heart Association’s Updated Dietary Guidelines Say Nuts Can Play a Positive Role in Heart-Health

Foods like pecans that contain mostly unsaturated fats can be included in a heart-healthy diet, according to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) newest edition of its dietary guidelines, unveiled October 5. The latest AHA guidelines specifically advise consumers to limit their intake of saturated fat, and in its place, “substitute grains and unsaturated fatty acids from fish, vegetables, legumes and nuts.”

According to the guidelines, to be published in the October 31 issue of Circulation, dietary factors that lower low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol include polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats when substituted for saturated fats.

“This is great news for pecans since more than half the fat (56 percent) found in pecans is monounsaturated fat and another 29 percent is polyunsaturated fat – meaning that almost 90 percent of the fats in pecans are heart-healthy,” notes Beth Hubrich, M.S., R.D., a dietitian with the National Pecan Shellers Association.

The AHA guidelines also cite a growing body of evidence which indicates that foods rich in certain polyunsaturated fatty acids can “confer cardioprotective effects beyond those that can be ascribed to improvements in blood lipoprotein profiles.” According to Hubrich, the AHA guidelines also cite nuts as being among the foods that are good sources of fiber.

“We were very pleased to see the release of the new American Heart Association guidelines,” said Brown. “Health organizations and health professionals alike are now recognizing that it’s not just the amount of fat, but it’s also the type of fat that’s important. Consumers can be assured that pecans are not only good-tasting, they’re also good for you and can help meet the goals of healthy eating set by the AHA.” In the guidelines, the AHA strongly endorses consumption of an overall diet that contains a variety of foods from all the food categories but emphasizes fruits and vegetables; fat-free and low-fat dairy products; cereal and grain products; legumes and nuts; and fish, poultry, and lean meats.

More on the Nutritional Benefits of Pecans

In 2000 alone, two important studies demonstrated that pecans can be incorporated into a heart-healthy diet. Research from New Mexico State University (NMSU), published in the March Journal of the American Dietetic Association, revealed that consumption of ¾ cup of pecans daily significantly lowered total and LDL cholesterol levels. In this study, nineteen men and women with normal blood lipid levels were divided into two groups, one of which served as the control group, and ate its regular diet for eight weeks. Subjects in the test group, however, supplemented their diets with ¾ cup of pecans every day. This group lowered their LDL cholesterol by six percent. Total cholesterol levels were lowered as well.

Another study on pecans, conducted by the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Dr. Ron Eitenmiller et al, (and presented at the June annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists) found that pecans contain as much as 95 milligrams of plant sterols per 100 grams, 90 percent of which is in the form of beta-sitosterol. Beta-sitosterol has been cited in multitudes of animal and human research studies as a food component that competes with the absorption of cholesterol in the body, and thus has the ability to lower blood cholesterol levels. Thus, a standard one-ounce serving of pecans would contain up to 27 milligrams of plant sterols (and possibly as much as 24 milligrams of the well-studied beta-sitosterol).

In addition to their cholesterol-lowering components, pecans contain vitamins A and E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and several B vitamins. Pecans are naturally cholesterol-free and sodium-free, and one serving provides about 10 percent of the Daily Value for zinc and fiber. And, like the AHA’s new recommendations, the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (released in May) also acknowledge that as part of a balanced diet, consumers can eat moderate amounts of fat as long as it is predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – the heart-healthy, unsaturated fats.

“Recommendations from the AHA, the government, health professionals and researchers, give the ‘green light’ to those Americans who think only of pecans as a holiday indulgence. They should be pleased to learn that pecans may help to lower their cholesterol, thereby reducing their risk for heart disease,” Ms. Brown said.