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Walnuts help maintain blood pressure for those at risk of heart disease

Researchers suggest the key is minimizing intake of saturated fats

Photo (c) Dionisvera - Fotolia
The findings of a new study could have many consumers reaching for walnuts.

Researchers from Penn State say that consuming walnuts, in conjunction with a diet that’s low in saturated fats, could be helpful in warding off heart disease and maintaining a healthy blood pressure.

“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,” said researcher Penny Kris-Etherton. “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.”

Staying heart healthy

To see how walnuts affected heart health, the researchers had 45 participants follow three different diet plans. Prior to following these diets, the researchers wanted everyone to begin “on the same starting plane,” so they had the participants follow a diet that “mimic[ked] an average American diet.”

After following this base diet for two weeks, the participants were assigned to one of three eating regimens for a period of six weeks:

  • A diet with no walnuts that contained the same amount of oleic acid (a fatty acid) that is found in walnuts;

  • A diet that incorporated whole walnuts; or

  • A diet that had the same amount of polyunsaturated fat and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that is found in walnuts.

The researchers had the participants rotate through each diet program so that everyone could experience each diet, and they placed breaks in between each round of dieting. At the end of each round, participants had their vitals taken to account for changes in cholesterol, diastolic blood pressure, central systolic blood pressure, arterial stiffness, brachial pressure, and central pressure.

At the end of the trials, all three diets were effective in producing better vitals in the study participants, but consuming whole walnuts was found to be most effective in lowering blood pressure.

The researchers hope this study pushes consumers to reach for a handful of walnuts the next time they’re hungry. The team emphasized that each of the diet program reduced participants’ intake of saturated fats, which they certainly credit to producing better cardiovascular outcomes.

“An average American diet has about 12 percent calories from saturated fat, and all of our treatment diets all had about seven percent, using walnuts or vegetable oils as a replacement,” said researcher Alyssa Tindall. “So, seeing the positive benefits from all three diets sends a message that regardless of whether you replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats from walnuts or vegetable oils, you should see cardiovascular benefits.”

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