Almond Study Finds Help for Pre-diabetics

Fri, 4 Nov. 2011 - 9:27 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

A study published late last year has found that almonds are a powerful insulin regulator in people who are prediabetic. Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone secreted by the pancreas, and its role is critical in that it carries the glucose from the food you eat to your cells for energy. In type 2 diabetes, either the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells ignore the insulin. When glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells, it can lead to all of the health complications we associate with diabetes.
 
Before people develop type 2 diabetes, they almost always have prediabetes, blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet high enough to classify as diabetic. About 57 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes—over one-fifth of the population. Recent research has shown that some long-term damage to the body, most significantly to the heart and circulatory system, may already be occurring during prediabetes.
 
The new almond study is promising because the researchers concluded that a diet consisting of 20% of calories from almonds over a 16-week period is effective in improving markers of insulin sensitivity and yields clinically significant improvements in low-density lipoproteins (“bad cholesterol”) in adults with prediabetes. These two results taken together mean almond consumption was found to be a positive factor in improved cardiovascular health in a broader sense as well, entirely in addition to reducing the symptoms of diabetes. Almonds are high in magnesium, which may help explain why they are heart protective. (The study, looking for still other cardiovascular health benefits, found no significant changes in systolic blood pressure or BMI over the 16 weeks between the almond eaters and the nut-free control group.)
 
The researchers, who were from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and Loma Linda University in California, gave the 65 adult participants just two ounces of almonds a day—the equivalent of about 46 almonds, or 320 calories’ worth. But you can get your almonds in a variety of ways.
 
There are very low-calorie yet delicious almond milk products on the market. Or try almond butter on toast. Almond butter is more nutrient-dense than peanut butter. It contains half the amount of saturated fat, less salt, and eight times as much calcium. Peanut butter, however, contains twice as much protein and four times as much niacin as almond butter.
 
Nuts in general are a healthy choice. Although well noted elsewhere, it’s worth restating here that all nuts have relatively high quantities of healthy fats, not the kind that make you fat. The fats in nuts lower cholesterol and are readily absorbed and used by the body. Adding nuts to a meal otherwise high in carbohydrates will also reduce the body’s blood-glucose spike from the high-carb foods.
 
Still, not all nuts are created equal. Among the nuts highest in protein, fiber, B-vitamins, calcium, and vitamin E, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, chestnuts, pistachios, and walnuts rank best.
 
A clinical study published a few years ago found that walnuts in particular can protect your arteries from saturated fat consumed in the diet. Walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fats, even among other nuts, and outperformed olive oil in the capacity to counter the effects of a saturated fat-rich meal. Consumption of a meal high in saturated fat typically causes an inflammatory response in the body that negatively impacts the ability of the arteries to carry necessary blood to tissue and organs. It also promotes the formation of plaque in the arteries. This response was limited by adding walnuts to the meal. 
 
Of all nuts, walnuts have the greatest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and contain more alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in particular than do other nuts. Walnuts also provide antioxidants and L-arginine, components identified in past studies as potential nutrients that improve artery function.
 
Are there any nuts that are nutritionally negligible? No, but as noted above with the differences between peanut and almond butter, specific nutrient amounts do vary. For example, chestnuts are lowest in fat, containing only about 10% as much fat as other nuts. Chestnuts contain three grams of fiber per ounce, but they are relatively low in protein.
 
Finally, if you choose roasted nuts, be aware of how they are roasted. Some of the misconception about the high fat content of nuts comes from the existence of oil-roasted nuts on the market. Most nuts contain only a tiny portion of saturated fat, if any. Dry roasted nuts don't have any added fat, but oil-roasted nuts are usually fried in oil. These are not the best choice, and certainly avoid nuts that have been roasted in saturated or hydrogenated fats (e.g., coconut oil).
 
J. Am. Coll. Nutrition, 2010, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 189-197
 
J. Am. Coll. Cardiol., 2006, Vol. 48, No. 8, pp. 1666-1671
 
Am. Diabetes Assoc., http://www.diabetes.org/
 
Ask Dr. Sears, “Family Nutrition: Nuts,” http://www.askdrsears.com/html/4/t043600.asp#top

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2011 • Volume 29, Number 1)


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