If you think eating a heart-healthy diet means you have to restrict yourself to bland, flavorless foods, think again. Delicious, satisfying foods like pecans may be just what the doctor (and your taste buds) ordered. A research study conducted at Loma Linda University and published in the September 2001 issue of the Journal of Nutrition has confirmed what many pecan lovers have known all along. Pecans not only taste good, they are also good for you, especially when it comes to lowering cholesterol levels.
The Loma Linda researchers, led by Dr. Joan Sabaté and Dr. Sujatha Rajaram, found that adding just a handful of pecans to a traditional low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet can have a dramatic impact on the diet’s effectiveness.
When the Loma Linda study participants were on the pecan-enriched diet, they lowered their total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol twice as much as they did when they ate the American Heart Association (AHA) Step I diet. Just as importantly, the pecan-enriched diet lowered blood triglyceride levels and helped maintain desirable levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol compared to the Step I diet, which often unfavorably raises triglycerides and usually lowers HDL levels.
The study participants (a total of 23 men and women between the ages of 25 and 55, with normal to mildly elevated cholesterol levels) were randomly placed on either the Step I diet, recommended by AHA as the first line of therapy for individuals with elevated cholesterol levels, or a pecan-enriched version of the Step I diet. After staying on their initially assigned diet for four weeks, they then switched to the other diet.
What was in the pecan-enriched diet? The Loma Linda researchers actually replaced 20 percent of the Step I diet calories with pecans. Pecans were used in a variety of ways, from adding them to cereals and salads to using pecans as a savory filling for pasta dishes and other entrees. For the average participant, this amounted to about a handful of pecans each day, depending on the person’s total caloric needs.
After the study was completed and all of the results were in, the researchers discovered that the pecan-enriched diet lowered LDL cholesterol levels by 16.5 percent, more than twice as much as the Step I diet (which was down only 6.7 percent from the participants’ baseline levels). Similarly, the pecan-enriched diet lowered total cholesterol levels 11.3 percent, twice as much as the Step I diet (down just 5.2 percent). Triglyceride levels went down for participants on the pecan-enriched diet (by 5.7 percent) whereas they went up for those on the Step I diet (4.8 percent).
“We found that the pecan diet actually lowered bad cholesterol about twice that of the heart-healthy diet,” said Dr. Rajaram. Dr. Rajaram added that the findings related to HDL levels were significant as well. The Step I diet actually lowered “good” cholesterol levels (clearly an undesirable result), while the pecan-enriched diet showed a positive increase in these levels by 5.6 percent. Dr. Rajaram points out that pecans contain heart-healthy fats that help keep HDL levels from falling. "Pecans have what we call the 'good' fats, which help to prevent the decline in HDL cholesterol. These fats lower the bad cholesterol and do not affect the good cholesterol," said Dr. Rajaram.
The government’s National Cholesterol Education Program notes that for every one percent reduction in LDL cholesterol, there is a 1.5 percent reduction in the incidence of coronary heart disease. Hence, the cholesterol-lowering effect produced by the pecan-enriched diet would correspond with a 25 percent decreased risk of heart disease, a disease that is currently the #1 killer of American men and women.
Pecans may help lower cholesterol while adding flavor, but what about the fat? Almost 90 percent of the fats in pecans are of the heart-healthy, unsaturated variety. In fact, two-thirds of these fats are the same type found in olive oil. Loma Linda researchers reported that although the Step I diet contained approximately 28 percent fat and the pecan-enriched diet contained 39.6 percent fat, study participants on the higher-fat pecan diet did not gain weight. “It’s true that the pecan-enriched diet contained a higher percentage of fat; however, in our study, we did not see any weight gain in those consuming pecans,” Dr. Rajaram noted.
This is encouraging news for the millions of Americans trying (and in many cases, failing) to eat a heart-healthy diet. “Many consumers find low-fat, heart-healthy diets unpalatable and difficult to adhere to,” Dr. Sabaté said. “This study reveals that the addition of pecans to a basic heart-healthy diet can help lower total and LDL cholesterol levels, while maintaining the levels of HDL cholesterol. The pecans also add taste, palatability, and satiety, which can help people stick to a heart-healthy dietary regimen.”
Regarding fat content in the diet, the Loma Linda researchers are proponents of the so-called “Mediterranean diet,” in which foods that are high in unsaturated fats (such as pecans) play an important role in promoting and maintaining good health.
“The take-away message from this encouraging study is that a heart-healthy diet does not have to be bland and tasteless, and that simply adding pecans to such a diet can improve flavor and cholesterol levels at the same time,” said Mike Adams, the owner of Royalty Pecan Farms near Caldwell, Texas, and Member of the Texas Pecan Board. “Everyone knows that pecans taste great, but scientific research is helping to uncover the incredible health benefits they offer as well.”
"Eating a handful of pecans will also provide you with nutrients such as vitamin A, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and several B vitamins,” Adams says. Pecans are naturally sodium-free, sugar-free, and cholesterol-free, and one serving provides about 10 percent of the Daily Value for zinc and fiber. Pecans also contain a significant amount of gamma tocopherol, a unique form of vitamin E that can benefit intestinal health and have a protective effect for prostate cancer, according to research studies.
As Americans look for simple ways to improve their health, this new research offers hope. Adding a handful of pecans a day may lower cholesterol quite dramatically. So, add pecans to cereal, use them in salads and entrees, sprinkle them over fat-free yogurt or even eat them plain as a snack. Enjoy not only their delicious taste, but also the added health benefits!