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Eating nuts may keep the doctor away

A fan of nuts wonders if they're healthy. "Today"' contributor Dr. Judith Reichman says recent studies show they help prevent heart disease
/ Source: TODAY

Q: Am I nuts to think that nuts can decrease my risk of heart disease?

A: No, you're not nuts. There are at least four studies in the U.S. showing the impact of nuts on cardiovascular disease (the Adventist Health Study, the Iowa Women's Health Study, the Nurses' Health Study, and the Physicians' Health Study). Together these studies looked at hundreds of thousands of individuals and found that nuts can indeed decrease the risk of heart disease.

The most recent study, and one I like because it includes an amazing number of people, came out of Europe. It followed more than half a million adults in 10 European countries. If you want the official name of the study (though you probably don't); it's called the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). EPIC showed that people who ate two servings of nuts a week had a 24 percent decrease in their risk of death from coronary heart disease compared to those who didn't eat nuts. Two servings come out to be 20 almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, or 56 grams. This risk was calculated after adjusting for the usual cardiovascular disease risk factors (including consumption of fish and other foods thought to have beneficial effects on heart health).

Why are nuts good? It's felt that their plant protein and fiber have a cholesterol-lowering effect, that nuts are a great source of Vitamin E and have an antioxidant effect. (Now we go back to the question of whether you should eat nuts or take vitamins to get this antioxidant effect. Most studies have shown that vitamins, especially E, don't have the positive health effects derived from consumption of the foods rich in these vitamins. Moreover, Vitamin E, when taken in high doses, can be harmful). Nuts also stimulate the release of an amino acid called arginine, one of the building blocks of nitric oxide. This latter substance helps maintain the proper function of the cells that form the lining (the endothelium) of our blood vessels.

Another query from “nut doubters” regards the caloric content of nuts: will noshing on them make you fat? It shouldn't, unless you overdo it. In fact, nuts may actually increase your sense of fullness and may diminish your desire to eat bad foods or large amounts of food throughout the day.

So how many nuts do you need to help your heart? Even though the European study talked about eating 20 almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts twice a week, you could probably switch to eating eight of these nuts a day to get the same benefits.

Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: Eating eight almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts a day may keep the cardiac doctor away.

Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.