The heart-healthy benefits of walnuts

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Whilst we are often encouraged to have concern for our cholesterol levels, it is seldom mentioned that one of the two main forms of cholesterol – known as ‘high density lipoprotein’ (HDL) cholesterol’- is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease consequences such as heart attacks and stroke. Also, while cholesterol reduction with commonly-used statin drugs can reduce the risk of heart attack, recent evidence published in the journal Circulation found that this benefit does not extend to individuals with relatively high levels of HDL cholesterol in their bloodstreams. This research supports the notion that an individual’s total cholesterol level may not be particularly useful for determining whether they are a heart attack waiting to happen.

The evidence as it stands suggests that boosting HDL cholesterol levels in the body is a sensible strategy for those looking to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. From a nutritional perspective, eating more fish rich in omega-3 fats such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardine appears to have the ability to raise HDL cholesterol levels. However, oily fish is not the only food that has potential here: in a study published recently in the journal Angiology, individuals were fed 20 g of walnuts each day for 8 weeks enjoyed satisfying increases in their HDL cholesterol levels.

This is not the only evidence which suggests that cracking into walnuts over the festive season that might have benefits for the heart. Another study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1998, found that walnut eating led to substantially enhanced HDL levels. Other studies have found the consumption of walnuts has the capacity to bring down overall cholesterol-levels. The findings of these studies are supported by other work which has found that regular nut-eating is associated with a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

While it is not clear whether walnuts have any distinct nutritional benefits over other nut types, one thing that is relatively unique to them is their high content of a fat known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This fat belongs to the so-called omega-3 family to which fish oils belong. While ALA is not the precisely the same as the fats found in fish, it appears nonetheless to have some effects in the body that would be expected to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease including ability to thin the blood. Also, like the omega-3 fats found in oily fish, high ALA consumption has been linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The science suggests that the walnut is one festive food that we can eat to our heart’s content.

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