Nut eaters may have a longer life expectancy

Behind the Headlines

Thursday November 21 2013

Nuts are actually a type of fruit, composed of a hard shell and a seed

Nuts are known to be rich in unsaturated fatty acids

"The answer to living longer is in a nutshell" is the pun in the Metro newspaper, reporting on a study into nut consumption. The study followed 76,464 female and 42,498 male health professionals in the US for up to 30 years.

The participants were asked about their nut consumption at the beginning of the study and then every couple of years. Deaths during the study were also monitored. The researchers found that eating nuts was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause during the study, and that the more frequently nuts were eaten, the lower the risk of death.

Eating 28g of nuts seven or more times per week was associated with a 20% reduced risk of death. This amount roughly corresponds to the size of a small bag of nuts that you can buy in a pub.

However, on its own the study can't show a cause and effect relationship. As many of the newspapers report, participants who consumed nuts frequently tended to be healthier as they were leaner, less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise and have a healthy diet. Somewhat surprisingly, though, these people were also more likely to drink more alcohol. Although these factors were adjusted for, there could be other differences that were not adjusted for.

This research reinforces the message that nuts can be part of a healthy balanced diet. But we should be wary of added salt – unsalted nuts are always the better option.

Read more about how a healthy diet can help prevent chronic diseases.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Richard M Fairbanks School of Public Health, and Indiana University, US. It was funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine and is available free of charge on an open access basis from the journal's website.

The International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation is a non-profit organisation that represents nine tree nut industries (almonds, Brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts) and supports nutrition research and education.

The researchers state that the funders had no role in the design or conduct of the study, in the collection, management, analysis or interpretation of the data, or in its preparation for publication.

This study was covered accurately by the Metro, the Mail Online and The Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph's coverage was particularly good as it noted some of the study's limitations, such as the fact that it did not prove a causal link between eating nuts and longer life, but pointing out that it backs up other research.

 

What kind of research was this?

This study investigated whether nut consumption was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause or death from specific causes. It involved two large independent cohort studies of nurses and other health professionals in the US.

Cohort studies are the ideal study design to address this question, as people need to be followed for a long period of time to see whether nut consumption is associated with a reduced risk of death. The gold standard study design – a randomised control trial – would be impractical because of the length of time involved.

However, cohort studies on their own cannot show causation, as it is difficult to account for all the factors (confounders) that may be responsible for the reduction in risk seen, so a variety of study approaches are needed. Despite this inherent limitation, large studies such as this one are still an important source of evidence.

 

What did the research involve?

The association between nut consumption and death was examined in 76,464 women participating in the Nurses' Health Study (1980-2010) and 42,498 men participating in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986-2010). To be included, men and women could not have had cancer, heart disease or a stroke before the start of the study.

Nut consumption was assessed at the start of the study and then every two to four years. Participants were asked how frequently they had consumed a serving of nuts (28g, or just under one ounce) during the previous year. The researchers then calculated average nut consumption during the study or until a diagnosis of stroke, heart disease, angina or cancer.

Deaths were monitored by searching death certificates and relevant documentation, the US National Death Index, and reports from family members and postal authorities.

The researchers then looked at the association between nut consumption and death after adjusting for known or suspected confounding predictors of death risk, including:

  • age
  • race
  • body mass index (BMI)
  • level of physical activity
  • smoking
  • multivitamin use
  • aspirin use
  • family and personal history of a variety of conditions
  • diet

 

What were the basic results?

During the 30 years of follow-up in the Nurses' Health Study, there were 16,200 deaths. During the 24 years of follow-up in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, there were 11,229 deaths.

Nut consumption reduced the risk of death from any cause during the study. The more frequently people ate nuts, the lower their risk:

  • participants who ate nuts less than once per week had a 7% reduced risk of death compared with those who ate none (hazard ratio [HR] 0.93%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.90 to 0.96)
  • participants who ate nuts once per week had a 11% reduced risk of death compared with those who ate none (HR 0.89%, 95% CI 0.86 to 0.93)
  • participants who ate nuts two to four times per week had a 13% reduced risk of death compared with those who ate none (HR 0.87%, 95% CI 0.83 to 0.90)
  • participants who ate nuts five or six times per week had a 15% reduced risk of death compared with those who ate none (HR 0.85%, 95% CI 0.79 to 0.91)
  • participants who ate nuts seven or more times per week had a 20% reduced risk of death compared with those who ate none (HR 0.80%, 95% CI 0.73 to 0.86)

Increasing nut consumption was also associated with reduced levels of risk of death from cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude that, "In two large independent cohorts of nurses and other health professionals, the frequency of nut consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality, independent of other predictors of death."

 

Conclusion

This study found that eating nuts is associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause, and that the more frequently nuts were eaten, the lower the risk of death. Eating 28g of nuts seven or more times per week was associated with a 20% reduced risk of death.

The researchers say that previous studies found that increased nut intake was associated with a reduced risk of several diseases (including type 2 diabetes mellitus, colon cancer, high blood pressure and diverticulitis), and that nut consumption has been linked to reductions in various risk factors for chronic diseases. Seeing whether nut consumption was associated with reduced risk of death was the next step.

The study has many strengths, but also has several limitations that should be considered when interpreting the results.

It used data from people in two large cohort studies with 24 to 30 years of follow-up. All the participants were US-based health professionals, so it is possible that there may be problems with generalisability to other groups of people. Single cohort studies on their own can't show a cause and effect relationship.

Diet, including nut consumption, was measured at regular intervals, making it more possible that any changes in diet during follow-up were captured. However, nut consumption was self-reported, and data on how the nuts were prepared (salted, spiced, roasted, raw) was not collected.

The researchers also collected extensive data on known or suspected confounding variables and these were adjusted for.

As many of the newspapers report, participants who consumed nuts frequently were leaner, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to use multivitamin supplements. They also consumed more fruits and vegetables and drank more alcohol. These factors were adjusted for, but the possibility of residual confounders remains.

The researchers also tried to exclude the possibility that their findings were because of reverse causality: that the association seen was down to the fact that people with chronic conditions and poor health eat less nuts, rather than that people who eat less nuts develop chronic conditions and poor health.

Despite these limitations – many of which are unavoidable because of the study design – this is an impressive piece of research. While it cannot prove that nuts increase life expectancy, this study certainly suggests a potential association between the two.

This research reinforces the message that nuts can form part of a healthy, balanced diet. We should be mindful of salt intake, however – eating more than 6g a day (around one full teaspoon) would be counterproductive, as this could lead to high blood pressure. 

Read more about diet and how much salt you should have in your diet

 

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Links to the headlines

Eating nuts 'may prolong life'. BBC News, November 21 2013

Handful of nuts a day can lower death risk of cancer and heart disease by a fifth. Mail Online, November 21 2013

Nuts linked to lower death risk. The Daily Telegraph, November 20 2013

The answer to living longer is in a nutshell. Metro, November 21 2013

Links to the science

Bao Y, Han J, Hu FB, et al. Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality. New England Journal of Medicine. Published online November 21 2013

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Lycomedes said on 04 December 2013

You should make clear that peanut (but not peanut butter) consumption data was separately analysed from major tree nut consumption and reported Both had similar associations as "nuts".

Snack peanuts, usually salted, were part of this study. That's because US consumption patterns show that 60+% of the "nuts" consumed there are peanuts and the study groups were American.

The American Heart Association recently awarded salted snack peanuts its “Heart Check” quality mark for their nutritional benefits, making the point that the salt levels of many types are below the qualifying threshold of 140mg of sodium per serving. That’s less sodium than in equivalent amounts of bread. Most of the salt is on the surface which is why peanuts taste salty. And of course roasted peanuts without salt are naturally very low in sodium.

The recent Institute of Medicine report which failed to recommend minimum sodium intakes and the AHA “Heart Check”, taken together, mean that for the average consumer salted peanuts eaten as a snack food as part of an overall healthy diet are not significant salt sources. They can be enjoyed for their taste and nutritional benefits without contributing to excessive salt intakes. And far more cheaply than almonds or walnuts.

The point the NEJM paper makes is that no nuts are silver bullets which can be added into an unhealthy diet. The public health message is to substitute nuts for less healthy snacks which generally are high in sugar, fat and salt.

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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