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The Mediterranean Diet: Walnuts & Cholesterol

Updated on October 26, 2009

Even among Americans who think they eat like Mediterraneans, few consume as many walnuts as real Mediterraneans. Walnuts are a truly basic staple in the traditional Mediterranean diet and are very widely used by the southern French, the Italians and the Greeks in a variety of ways, but especially in salads.

Walnuts are a very important source of Omega 3 fatty acids which are most commonly thought of as "fish oil fats". These fats are associated with lower rates of heart disease and make walnuts an important part of a heart healthy diet.

In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a research team assessed the ability of walnuts to lower cholesterol and to prevent cholesterol oxidation. In this study participants were placed on a Mediterranean diet in which 35% of the calories obtained from monounsaturated fat were replaced with walnuts.

After 6 weeks the results showed that the walnut version of the Mediterranean diet produced a 4% reduction in total cholesterol, a 6% reduction in LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and, though the LDL cholesterol carried more polyunsaturated fat from the walnuts, its resistance to oxidation was preserved.

The conclusion was that walnuts were capable of further reducing cholesterol in people already consuming olive oil as their principal fat source. However this very modest reduction in cholesterol is probably not the main benefit of walnuts. The greatest benefits of walnuts may have to do with substances called prostaglandins.

Prostaglandins are hormone like substances that are essential in many important biological processes. However some prostaglandins promote inflammation, while others are much less apt to do so.

It turns out that the Omega 3 fats found in walnuts and fish living in cold waters are the building blocks for the kinds of prostaglandins that are much less inflammatory. On the other hand prostaglandins made from the Omega 6 fats found in corn oil and other seed oils are the building blocks of the inflammatory, and sometimes harmful, prostaglandins.

This means that an increased intake of walnuts and Omega 3 fats may inhibit diseases in which inflammation plays a major role. This potentially includes many chronic diseases such heart disease, cancer and arthritis.

In addition those who consume high levels of Omega 3 fats, such as the Arctic Inuit who eat great amounts of cold water fish and whale blubber, have less sticky platelets and, consequently, blood that is less apt to clot and clog up arteries. This almost certainly contributes to their very low rates of heart disease.

The bottom line is that walnuts are good for you. They may reduce cholesterol but probably even more important is their effect on prostaglandins and the many things prostaglandins do. You should have some walnuts every day: put them on your oatmeal, in your salads and in any other recipes they seem to fit. They're also just great as a snack. You can use a nutcracker to get into the hard shells at home and then just take the delicious nut with you wherever you go, ready to eat from a ziplock plastic bag! Try walnuts and your body will thank you!

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