This study seems nutty

Here at Partnership HealthPlan, we are constantly searching for new, better, and easier ways for people to improve their health. Thus, it was with great relish that we read a recent study in the NEJM on the health benefits of eating nuts. In a large, prospective, observational study, researchers from Boston examined the effect of eating nuts on mortality. Looking at data from almost 130,000 people over 3,000,000 person-years of follow-up, they found that people who ate more nuts had lower mortality rates. Not only that, the more nuts eaten, the more protective the effect. The data came from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

An observational study like this does not prove cause and effect, of course, but the researchers did their best to eliminate confounding variables. Those who ate more nuts tended to smoke less, weigh less, exercise more, and eat more fruits and vegetables than those who ate fewer nuts. But even when these factors were controlled for, the favorable impact of nuts on mortality persisted. In other words, smokers who ate more nuts had a lower mortality rate than smokers who ate less nuts.

What would account for such results? Nuts are loaded with fiber, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants. Many studies over the years have shown that eating more nuts reduces inflammatory markers as well as lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, gallstones, and colon cancer. But this current study is the first to show an overall favorable impact on mortality.

The benefits appear to be similar for consumers of both peanuts and tree nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, Brazil nuts, etc.) Peanuts, of course, are not exactly nuts. They are more like beans, and are chemically quite different from tree nuts, which are true nuts. Nonetheless, the health benefits appear to apply to both categories. Reassuring news for those who prefer one type of nut over another.

Folks who are allergic to nuts will derive no joy from this study, since they obviously cannot benefit from the positive health effects of this food group. They must rely on other healthy lifestyle habits to lower their mortality risk. But for those not allergic to nuts, the probable beneficial effects of these small nuggets are a cause for celebration. Nuts taste so much better than many other foods which also have healthy effects. I mean, when is the last time you actually enjoyed the taste of kale? Or raddichio? Eating nuts is one of those little win-wins which make life a bit more enjoyable. They taste good and they’re good for you.

So, if your patients, family members, or friends ask your professional opinion on whether nuts are good or bad for you, you can safely say, “I know this may sound nuts, but nuts might actually be good for your health. I cannot promise you’ll live longer, but there is a small possibility that eating nuts will give you a bit more time on this good green earth.”

Richard Fleming, MD

Bao, et.al., NEJM, Nov 21, 2013, pp. 2001-2011

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