Although the vast majority of people view almonds as a type of nut, technically, they are not. In fact, almonds are actually the seeds of the fruit of the almond tree, a mid-sized tree that has aromatic pink and white flowers. There are two types of almonds: sweet and bitter. Only the sweet are eaten; bitter almonds are used to make almond oil.
Believed to have originated in North Africa and western Asia, almonds have been grown for thousands of years. They are even mentioned in the Bible. Today, almonds flourish in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain and Italy. In the United States, they are grown in California. Known to be high in fat, almonds have been shunned by some people concerned about weight gain. Is that a wise choice?
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Led by Canadian David J. A. Jenkins, MD, a group of researchers have conducted a number of studies on almonds and other foods that tend to lower bad (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) cholesterol. One study that is frequently noted was published in 2002 in Circulation. The three-month study included 15 men and 12 postmenopausal women (average age 64) who had elevated levels of cholesterol. Their mean total cholesterol level was 260 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl). During the first month, the participants consumed an average of 74 grams of almonds each day. That meant that almonds comprised almost 25 percent of their diets. During the second month, they ate about 37 grams of almonds each day. In the last month, they a tea low-saturated-fat whole-wheat muffin.
The results were truly stunning. When the participants ate the half-portion of almonds, their levels of LDL cholesterol dropped an average of 4.4 percent; when they ate the full portion, their LDL levels dropped an average of 9.4 percent. The whole wheat muffins did not appear to have any significant effects on cholesterol levels. The researchers concluded that, “almonds used as snacks in the diets of hyperlipidemic subjects significantly reduce coronary heart disease risk factors, probably in part because of the non-fat (protein and fiber) and mono-unsaturated fatty acid components of the nuts”.
Another study led by Dr. Jenkins was published in 2006 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In the study, people followed a dietary plan known as the Portfolio Eating Plan. The plan includes lipid-lowering foods such as plant sterols, viscous fiber, soy protein, and almonds. The subjects were studied for a year. Of the 55 people who completed the study, almost one-third reduced their LDL (bad) cholesterol by more than 20 percent. That’s the same reduction by people who take the first generation of statin drugs, such as Pravastatin (Pravachol).
Dr. Jenkins was also interested in the role that the Portfolio diet could play in helping to control blood pressure. When he and his associates studied the association between cholesterol-lowering foods and blood pressure, they found that these foods had a strong impact. In fact, in an article published in June 2008 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers noted that, “A dietary portfolio of plant-based cholesterol-lowering foods reduced blood pressure significantly, related to almond intake. The dietary portfolio of combining a range of cholesterol-lowering foods may benefit cardiovascular disease risk both by reducing serum lipids and also blood pressure”.
Could eating almonds actually help people lose weight? A study published in 2003 in the International Journal of Obesity placed 65 overweight or obese people on either an almond-enriched low-calorie diet ora low-calorie diet high in complex carbohydrates. While both diets contained the same amount of calories and equivalent amounts of protein, the people eating the almond enriched diet consumed 39 percent of their calories from fat, 25 percent from monounsaturated fat; the people on the high-complex carbohydrates diet consumed only 18 percent of their calories from fat, of which 5 percent was monounsaturated fat. Fifty-three percent of their calories came from carbohydrates. At the end of 24 weeks, the almond-eating people lost more weight, and more body fat. They also had reductions in total body water and systolic blood pressure.
The almond diet even appeared to be more beneficial for those subjects with type 1 diabetes. Ninety-six percent of the subjects with type 1 diabetes who ate the almond diet were able to reduce their medication; only 50 percent of those on the complex carbohydrate diet could do that. The researchers concluded that, “Almond supplementation of a formula based LCD [low-calorie diet] is a novel alternative to self-selected complex carbohydrates and has a potential role in reducing the public health implications of obesity.
Another almond weight study was conducted by two Purdue University researchers. It was then published in 2007 in the British Journal of Nutrition. In a 23-week crossover study, which included 20 women with a mean age of 24 and a mean body mass index (BMI) of 25, participants were randomized to either eat a diet with almonds or eat their usual diet. The almond group added about two ounces per day of almonds to their regular diet. That’s a whopping 344 calories! The control group ate their regular diet and no almonds.
After ten weeks, everyone had a three-week washout period. Then, the control group ate daily almonds for ten weeks, and the original almond group ate no almonds. The researchers found that participants who ate the almonds did not gain weight. How could that be? Apparently, since the participants felt satisfied, they reduced their consumption of other foods. The researchers also observed that the subjects who ate almonds tended to eat smaller amounts of carbohydrates. So, the almonds replaced carbohydrate rich foods.
MENTAL WELL-BEING AND NUTRITIONAL BENEFITS Of ALMONDS
In a study published in 2004 in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers from California’s Loma Linda University studied some of the benefits of adding almonds to the diet. Almonds were added to the diets of 81 men and women between the ages of 25 and 70. During the first six months of the study, the participants ate their usual diet; during the second six months, everyone added an average of 52 grams of almonds to their daily diet. The researchers found that by including the nutritional benefits of almonds in their diets, the subjects increased their intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, dietary fiber, vegetable protein, alpha-tocopherol vitamin E, magnesium, and copper. At the same time, the subjects reduced their intake of trans fats, sodium, cholesterol, and sugars. The researchers noted that, “These spontaneous nutrient changes closely match the dietary recommendations to prevent cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.”
In a study conducted at the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston and published in 2005 in The Journal of Nutrition, researchers determined that the antioxidants in the skin of almonds and the vitamin E contained within almonds are a strong antioxidant team. Thus, while the flavonoids in almond skins enhanced LDL’s resistance to oxidation by 18 percent (thereby making them less sticky and therefore less likely to clog arteries), when combined with the vitamin E from inside almonds, LDL’s resistance to oxidation soared. The researchers also identified 20 powerful antioxidants in almond skins. People who eat almonds with skins significantly increase the amount of flavonoids and vitamin E in their bodies.
Those who have kidney or gallbladder problems are often told not to eat foods with oxalates. Since almonds contain oxalates, people with kidney or gall bladder problems should discuss this issue with their health providers before consuming a bulk amount of almonds. Should almonds be a regular part of the diet? Absolutely.