If you’re not concerned about heart health, you should be. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., with other heart-related conditions not far behind. No matter what age you are, it’s important to make sure you’re taking care of your heart so it can best take care of you. This means avoiding too many saturated fats or salt, getting plenty of exercise, and of course watching your blood pressure.
To help with that last one, a new study indicates there are some potential protective benefits of consuming one nutty super food in particular—walnuts.
Researchers from Penn State University found consuming whole walnuts each day as part of a diet low in saturated fat can reduce blood pressure and the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease for those at risk. The lead authors of the study say their results underline the importance of replacing saturated fat with healthier alternatives.
The researchers for this study recruited 45 overweight or obese participants between the ages of 30-65. All participants were put on the same diet, with 12% of calories coming from saturated fat—typical of the standard American diet—two weeks prior to the study.
The participants were then put on three different diets for six week periods, with a break in between each. Each of these diets were five percent lower in saturated fat than their pre-study diet, and replaced the saturated fat with unsaturated sources from either whole walnuts, the same amount of omega 3 and polyunsaturated fats found in walnuts from a different source, and the same amount of oleic acid (another fatty acid) found in walnuts from another source.
The authors of this study said this was to determine whether or not it was the fats that happen to be in walnuts or the bioactive compounds in the walnuts themselves reducing the risk factors for heart disease.
The participants were assessed for their central systolic and diastolic blood pressure (that’s the top and bottom numbers on your blood pressure readout), brachial pressure, and arterial stiffness throughout each diet trial—all of which help indicate risk of cardiovascular disease. The authors of this study said while all the diets lower in saturated fat had positive outcomes, the diets supplemented with whole walnuts showed the greatest heart health benefits.
“When participants ate whole walnuts, they saw greater benefits than when they consumed a diet with a similar fatty acid profile as walnuts without eating the nut itself,” Penny Kris-Etherton, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “So it seems like there’s a little something extra in walnuts that are beneficial—maybe their bioactive compounds, maybe the fiber, maybe something else—that you don’t get in the fatty acids alone.”
The authors of the study also note their results underline the importance of replacing saturated fat with healthier alternatives when possible. They advise reducing red meat and full-fat dairy intake—replacing it with skim milk and other sources of unsaturated fats—like walnuts!