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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Substituting almonds for less healthy foods could help dieters stick to a calorie-controlled diet, and lower their cholesterol at the same time, says a new study.
"Nuts, and in this case almonds, shouldn't be on the ‘do not eat' list, they can be effectively incorporated in a weight loss plan, with the caveat that they have to be portion controlled," said Dr. Gary Foster, who led the study at Temple University in Philadelphia.
The new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and supported by the Almond Board of California, involved 123 generally healthy but obese people who followed a calorie-controlled diet for 18 months. Women ate 1,200-1,500 calories per day, while men ate 1,500-1,800.
Half the people, assigned at random by researchers, were given two 28-gram packages of almonds (about 24 almonds per package) to eat each day. That works out to about 350 calories' worth. The other half agreed to avoid nuts altogether.
When researchers checked in with dieters after six months, they found that the nut-free dieters had lost slightly more weight than the almond eaters: 16 pounds compared to 12 pounds, on average. A year later, both groups had gained some of their weight back, and there was no longer a clear difference in total weight loss between participants who did and didn't eat almonds.
Past research also suggests that nuts like almonds might play a role in reducing risk factors for heart disease, so Foster and his team expected to see some improvement in cholesterol and levels of blood fats known as triglycerides among the almond-eating dieters.
Six months into the study, cholesterol in the almond group had fallen 8.7 milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL), on average, compared to 0.1 mg/dL in the nut-free group - keeping both groups under the 200 mg/dL limit for total cholesterol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After 18 months, cholesterol levels had risen in both groups but were still lower, on average, in the almond group - although the difference could have been due to chance.
"This shows you can include almonds in the context of a weight control program, lose a significant amount of weight and get nice additional benefits in terms of cholesterol and triglycerides," said Foster.
Still, he urges caution. "Almonds don't make you lose weight; they're not free calories," he said.
It can be difficult for dieters to stay on track for as long as 18 months, and healthy people have fewer incentives to lose weight than those with health problems, said Dr. Michelle Wien, a nutrition researcher at Loma Linda University in California, who wasn't involved in the study.
In their report, researchers point to a lack of difference in blood fats at the end of the study as evidence that participants stopped following the diet over time. That's normal in any type of weight loss program, said Wien.
Snacks like nuts - promoted as a healthy source of nutrients by the U.S. Department of Agriculture - are generally considered off-limits to dieters because of their high fat content. Almonds are particularly rich in magnesium, potassium and vitamin E, as well as being a good source of fiber and calcium, according to the study's funder, the Almond Board of California.
When dieters are limiting how many calories they eat, it's important they eat foods that are nutrient dense, with a nice level of vitamins and minerals, and good quality fats, said Wien.
It's a comfort for people who are struggling with weight management, said Wien. They often crave something crunchy, something palatable with a nice texture, she added.
Foster agreed. If people can eat foods they enjoy when they're dieting, they are more likely to stick to their weight loss plan, and keep the weight off, said Foster.
The message to dieters is not ‘eat all the almonds you want and you'll lose weight,' but you can effectively incorporate almonds as part of a weight controlled diet," said Foster.
SOURCE: bit.ly/Pe1Kkm American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online June 27, 2012.