January’s Nutrition Hot Topic: Almonds & Your Cholesterol

I think Satan himself invented Mondays.

After careful consideration, a Black Keys listening session and two bags of Twizzlers I have finally mustered the courage to write a hot topic post. It doesn’t actually take bravery, it merely requires endurance. Along with my brain, my finger muscles have been on vacation for the last three weeks. No note taking, paper writing or online researching has been done and the cells in my body are confused. While my sacred ‘me time’ is in short supply these days, I decided to devote some serious time to you all. Surely by now you all must be thinking: How am I supposed to start off the New Year without Kimberly discussing some bangin’ nutrition hot topic? Ah my little grasshopper, you are learning! I haven’t done one of these since July, but I can tell by all the non-existent comments you people leave me that you’re yearning for knowledge. So let’s get going.

I love weird stuff. I also take pleasure is learning. When the two collide absolute madness ensues. Add to that tickling duo, I also enjoy absurd health claims like drinking clam juice to improve skin elasticity, eating moldy cheese as a means for improving GI health or taking laxatives to stimulate immune cells. Those were all made up so please scratch clam juice off your food list right now.

Last semester a professor of mine assigned a media critique where in we had to find a health claim published in relation to food and disease. You know, one of those articles where the author claims blueberries can help cure herpes. The second part of the assignment involved sifting through medical journals for evidential support to said claim. Ultimately, we were doing the due diligence the author failed to do. It was enlightening and also a little bit boring. Little known fact: don’t ever base your medical decisions on one research study or a trendy article run in Bowel Movements Monthly. Loads of evidential support needs to be in place for any type of public health initiative to be put into action. So when you see an article run in People Magazine about rubbing grated carrots on your skin each night to ward off restless leg syndrome, please do your homework.

English: Shelled almonds (Prunus dulcis) Itali...

My claim came from Female First Magazine. Don’t let the title fool you, this publication runs on estrogen and those weird female protein bars you see in the drug store. I got my period shortly after leaving the webpage, ergo, user be warned. Moving on, the lifestyle section highlighted almonds as a ‘super food’ during the month of November. Among the numerous health benefits cited in the article, the ability to reduce cholesterol was one proclamation the author made about almonds. For years now, serum cholesterol has been a target for treating and preventing heart disease. Today, heart disease is the number one killer in the United States. Now researchers and the medical community are interested in exploring intervention approaches outside of pharmaceuticals for reducing blood cholesterol levels. Kimberly, tell me something I don’t already know. Please!

Nuts are plant-based foods rich in unsaturated fatty acids (good fat), soluble fiber, vitamins and minerals. Almonds are a tree nut and contain all the aforementioned nut components. Many researchers have dedicated studies to exploring almonds’ cholesterol lowering effects due to their nutrient dense nature and potential for clinical benefits. Blah, blah, blah. But is it true?! Can almonds actually lower my cholesterol?

Let’s brush up on cholesterol real quick. LDL is the bad stuff, HDL is the good stuff. If you’re a goody two shoes patient and know you cholesterol levels, below is a classification chart provided by the National Cholesterol Education Program. Yeah, this is happening.

Allow me to prepare you – we are going to talk about three research studies. I have condensed them each to a paragraph. I will not bore you with study design details nor will I discuss statistical analyses. I am giving you the SparkNotes of the SparkNotes. You will just have to trust me and if you don’t, I have my references listed at the bottom of the post. Fact check away, you little devil you.

The springboard for the Female First article claim was based on a study performed by the University of Toronto.  The study had 27 participants and they cycled through three, 1-month diet phases: a whole-wheat, low saturated fat muffin phase, a full dose almond phase and a half dose almond plus half dose muffin phase.  During the full dose almond phase, participants consumed about a half cup of almonds daily. During the half dose almonds phase they consumed, you guessed it, about a quarter cup. Participants were cycled through each diet phase.

So what did they find? Perfectly boring, modest results. There was a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol among participants during the whole almond dose phase. We’re talking 2% reductions here people. To say a 2% reduction in LDL cholesterol is modest is like saying Al Gore is kind of into global warming. Side bar: I blame him for this whole polar icecap melting issue. What did the pilgrims do when climate issues arose over 3,000 miles away? Oh yeah, nothing. Ignorance is bliss and technology is a curse, says the girl operating a computer powered by hazelnuts. Back to the topic at hand, there were not other improvements in any of the other cholesterol parameters and a 2% reductions is nothing to alert the press about. At least I don’t think so. Let’s look at some other studies, shall we?

Published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, another study found that a high-almond diet significantly reduced total cholesterol by 4.4% and LDL cholesterol by 7.0%, as compared to a low almond diet. A ‘high almond diet’ would involve you replacing 20% of your caloric intake with almonds. These people also followed the National Cholesterol Education Program Step I diet and all meals were prepared for them in a metabolic kitchen. Essentially, we’re talking STRICT dietary control. So if you ate a 2,000 calorie diet, you’d have to get 400 of your calories from almonds. That’s around a half cup of almonds each day.

In a different study published in 2002, researchers from the University of California Davis supplemented 22 individuals with normal cholesterol levels with roughly 65 grams of whole almonds daily. They found that after six weeks, participants saw declines in total cholesterol by 4% and LDL cholesterol by 6%. I could dive into the three additional studies I pulled for the assignment, but I will spare you. They all yielded similar results and it would only continue this yawn fest. You’re welcome.

Bottom Line: Ooh la la. So we’re talking a 4-7% decrease in either total or LDL cholesterol with the supplementation of a half cup of almonds each day. Look, a reduction is a reduction, but come on! As a future RD I will always tout food over medications.  However, we now have these little pills on the market called Statins which are specifically designed to lower elevated LDL cholesterol. Depending on the brand and dose, Statins can lower LDL cholesterol anywhere from 18 to 46%; convincing your doctor to let you lower your cholesterol through this tree nut may not be a feasible option. I love almonds just as much as the next nutrition geek, but a half a cup each day just sounds…gross. What’s more is this author used the word ‘powerful’ to describe almonds’ ability to reduce cholesterol. Powerful, eh?  To say a 4-7% reduction in LDL or total cholesterol is powerful is the equivalent of saying you need an iPhone to help you poop.

Almonds are a wonderful, nutrient dense food, but eating them by the palmful to lower your cholesterol levels may not be the best approach.

References:

“Super food feature: Almond – Female First”, n.d., http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/health/Super+food+feature-2233.html.

David J A Jenkins et al., “Dose response of almonds on coronary heart disease risk factors: blood lipids, oxidized low-density lipoproteins, lipoprotein(a), homocysteine, and pulmonary nitric oxide: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial,” Circulation 106, no. 11 (September 10, 2002): 1327-1332.

Joan Sabaté et al., “Serum lipid response to the graduated enrichment of a Step I diet with almonds: a randomized feeding trial,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 77, no. 6 (June 2003): 1379-1384.

Dianne A Hyson, Barbara O Schneeman, and Paul A Davis, “Almonds and almond oil have similar effects on plasma lipids and LDL oxidation in healthy men and women,” The Journal of Nutrition 132, no. 4 (April 2002): 703-707.

One comment

  1. Hey Kimberly, I am a trusty follower, but can’t comment on your old blog. Maybe on this one.
    I love to read your blogs. They make me grin and briefly contemplate my eating habits. Briefly!

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