Bowl of Pistachios image

“Eat your greens” is undeniable health advice. But a new study by Penn State scientist makes the credo, well, a bit nutty. That’s because the research shows pistachios can fight cholesterol in two distinct and powerful ways.

While nuts have been associated with heart health for more than a decade—despite the hard-to-shake reputation of being fatty foods—pistachios have overshadowed by more studied nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and even macadamia nuts (which have the highest fat content of all nuts). Peanuts have been widely studied, too, though you likely know that peanuts are technically legumes and not nuts.

Not surprisingly, most of the nut studies are funded by growers and food manufacturers. That’s the case with the Penn State research, too, also financially staked in part by the National Institutes of Health. Yet the nut research is published in peer-reviewed medical journals and scientifically performed. Basically, these studies set up the nuts for success and, thanks to the medicinal power of plant foods, the nuts prove to be significant health boosters. Walnuts have been widely associated with protecting against cancer, while almonds have gained acceptance as cardiovascular powerhouses.

Now pistachios arrive with serious scientific meddle. The Penn State researchers showed that pistachios not only lower LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) because the nut contains omega-3 fats that sweep away the unwanted LDL in the blood and arteries, but that a pistachio also contains a substance that controls an enzyme called stearoyl CoA desaturase that is vital to cholesterol buildup.

Not bad for a nut that for decades was best known for shells dyed red to gain attention.

The Penn State study used a controlled feeding approach in which the volunteer subjects eat only food provided by the researchers. All volunteers consumed a typical American diet for two weeks, which translated to 35 percent overall fat and 11 percent saturated fat of daily calories. Saturated fat is considered the primary culprit is leading cholesterol to clog arteries.

Then the study subject

s tested three cholesterol-reduction diets for a month apiece, with two-week breaks in between the month-long diet trials. The first month’s diet featured 25 percent overall and 8 percent saturated fat with no pistachios. The second month-long diet included enough pistachios to represent 10 percent of all calories consumed for the day/week/month. The third month-long diet upped the pistachio intake to 20 percent of daily calories. Half of the nuts were used for snacks while the other half were employed in meals and recipes.

As a result of adding pistachios, the second month-long diet was 30 percent total fat and 8 percent saturated fat, while the third diet was 34 percent total fat and 8 percent saturated fat. Note that pistachios added zero saturated fat.

The diet with the most pistachios—and, yes, the most fat—reduced LDL cholesterol levels by 12 percent more than the no-nut cholesterol-reduction diet. The diet with moderate pistachio intake (call it a daily handful) reduced cholesterol by nine percent compared to the control group.

Here’s where it gets interesting for pistachio lovers and growers alike. The Penn State researchers found the “fatty acid profile of pistachios” is not plentiful enough to reduce LDL that effectively, suggesting that the green nuts likely contain “phytosterols” that further act to unclog arteries and prevent blood clots that cause heart attacks.

Eat your greens, indeed. While snacking on pistachios is appealing, you might find that adding them to salad and smoothies (for a great flavor that reminds of pistachio ice cream without the butterfat) or grinding them to coat your fish or chicken breast will add variety to your cholesterol busting.

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“Bob Condor is the Daily Health Blogger for Barton Publishing . He is also the Living Well columnist for theSeattle Post-Intelligencer . He covers natural health and quality of life issues and writes regularly for national magazines, including Life, Esquire, Parade, Self, and Outside. He is a former syndicated health columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of six books, including “The Good Mood Diet” and “Your Prostate Cancer Survivors' Guide.” He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two 11-year-old kids.