It looks like President Obama has the right idea. Eating nuts on a regular basis may reduce harmful inflammation throughout the body, finds a study published last week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The finding suggests a possible explanation for why nuts, in previous research, have been linked to longer life and lower rates of heart disease and diabetes.
The new analysis looked at the health records and dietary habits of more than 5,000 men and women taking part in either the Nurses' Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Specifically, researchers wanted to see if people who ate more nuts had fewer markers for inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin 6 (IL6), in their blood. (Both of these compounds increase in the body when inflammation is present, and inflammation is known to be a contributor to chronic disease.)
Their hypothesis rang true: They found that people who ate nuts five or more times per week—and people who swapped in three servings of nuts per week in place of red meat, eggs, or refined grains—had lower levels of CRP and IL6 than those who almost never ate nuts.
Lead author Ying Bao, MD, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says that nuts have many healthful components—including magnesium, fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s not known which of these are responsible for nuts’ apparent anti-inflammatory benefits, she adds, but says she’d like to explore this question in future studies.
The study, which was supported by a grant from the non-profit International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation, builds on previous research, says Dr. Bao, “offering another reason to enjoy eating nuts.”
It’s important to remember, though, that nuts are high in calories, so bigger servings aren’t necessarily better. “I think people should be conscious of not going overboard and stick to the current American Heart Association recommendation of a handful of nuts per day,” she adds.
Participants didn’t provide details in this study about how big their servings were or how, exactly, they substituted in nuts for other foods. But examples might include swapping walnuts for croutons on your salad, a peanut butter sandwich for a BLT at lunchtime, or almonds for cheese and crackers as a pre-dinner snack.
No matter how or when, most people can afford to add more nuts to their diet. A 2014 study found that only 4 in 10 Americans were eating them on a daily basis.