Want to protect your heart? Eat this nut every day

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Humans have been eating walnuts for thousands of years. Now, a new study finds that our early ancestors had the right idea all those years ago. 

Maintaining or regaining robust cardiovascular health is usually synonymous with eliminating certain foods from one’s diet, such as red meats or baked goods. Staying healthy doesn’t have to be all about subtraction, though, as researchers have collected considerable evidence that suggests adding walnuts to your daily diet can reduce heart disease risk.

This new research, conducted by Dr. Emilio Ros from the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona in collaboration with Loma Linda University, found that eating walnuts every day appears to lower bodily inflammation. Lower levels of inflammation are linked to an overall lower risk of heart disease.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to incorporate walnuts into your diet. Many eat them solely as a snack, but if that approach isn’t to your liking walnuts can be added to any number of larger dishes like salads, pasta, or cereals.

This study was actually conducted as part of a larger project called the Walnuts and Healthy Aging (WAHA) study, which is the most extensive research initiative ever focusing on daily walnut consumption. Regarding these findings specifically, a group of 600 healthy older (ages 60-79 years old) adults participated. For two full years, half the participants were told to eat 30-60 grams of walnuts daily. During that period the other half of the participants simply followed their usual non-walnut diets.

By the end of the two-year research period, adults who had followed a strict walnut heavy diet showed significantly lower signs of bodily inflammation in comparison to the control group. Statistically, inflammatory markers in the blood of participants in the walnut group dropped by 11.5%. 

Generally speaking, scientists search for 10 distinct “markers” of inflammation in the blood. Of those 10, six were significantly reduced among participants who ate walnuts every day. It’s worth mentioning that one of those six markers showing reduction was interleukin-1β, a pro-inflammatory cytokine that has already been linked to coronary heart disease.

“Walnuts have an optimal mix of essential nutrients like the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA (2.5g/oz), and other highly bioactive components like polyphenols2, that likely play a role in their anti-inflammatory effect and other health benefits,” Dr. Ros says.

So, eating walnuts certainly appears to reduce inflammation in the body. But what does that have to do with heart disease? The human body’s relationship with inflammation is complex, to say the least. When a person stubs their toe or comes down with an infection of some sort, short-term inflammation helps the body recover quickly and efficiently. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game. 

“Acute inflammation is a physiological process due to activation of the immune system by injury such as trauma or infection, and is an important defense of the body”, Dr. Ros explains. “Short-term inflammation helps us heal wounds and fight infections, but inflammation that persists overtime (chronic), caused by factors such as poor diet, obesity, stress and high blood pressure, is damaging instead of healing, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular health. The findings of this study suggest walnuts are one food that may lessen chronic inflammation, which could help to reduce the risk for heart disease – a condition we become more susceptible to as we age.”

Zeroing in on the direct relationship between inflammation and heart disease a bit further, chronic inflammation is considered a big predictor of atherosclerosis (plaque buildup/hardening of the arteries). Well, atherosclerosis is thought of as the primary cause of both heart attacks and strokes. 

The sequence of events is clear: chronic inflammation puts one at high risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. This research indicates walnuts reduce inflammation, which in turn lowers cardiovascular disease risk.

Outside of heart-related considerations, walnuts also offer tons of other healthy nutrients such as vitamin E, vitamin B6, phosphorus, and copper. Even if you aren’t all that concerned about your heart health status right now, you can’t go wrong opting for some walnuts over chips or candy.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.