Pecans, loved for centuries for their outstanding taste, should no longer be viewed as a holiday indulgence. These delicious nuts can add flavor, crunch, and texture to just about any meal or snack. Now, a study at New Mexico State University (NMSU) finds that pecans offer something even more important than great taste and versatility – a positive impact on health.

The research, conducted by NMSU’s Wanda Morgan, Ph.D., shows that adding pecans to a self-selected diet lowers LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels by six percent; total cholesterol levels were lower as well. This encouraging news about the positive impact of pecans on heart health was published in the March 2000 issue of Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

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” (pecan-eaters) group, however, supplemented their diets with ¾ cup of pecans every day.

Even though the test group ate more total fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat each day than those who did not eat pecans, test subjects lowered their levels of bad and total cholesterol – and did not gain weight. “The research shows that we don’t have to be afraid of the fat in pecans,” says Dr. Morgan. “Pecans can be a part of a balanced and varied diet.”

Pecans contain plant components with antioxidant properties, which can slow the oxidation or “rusting” of LDL cholesterol. University research has confirmed that pecans also contain plant sterols, touted for their cholesterol-lowering ability. Although pecans contain mostly protein and fat, more than half the fat (about 60 percent) found in pecans is monounsaturated fat and approximately 30 percent is polyunsaturated fat – meaning that almost 90 percent of the fats in pecans are heart-healthy. In fact, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledge that consumers can eat moderate amounts of fat, as long as they are of the unsaturated variety.

“Many have deprived themselves of the great taste and nutritional benefits of pecans because of a fear of fat,” said Beth Hubrich, M.S., R.D. of the National Pecan Shellers Association. “Rest assured, the fats found in pecans are the good fats – the unsaturated fats a body needs to stay healthy,” Hubrich said.