Pistachio Nuts for Heart Health

Did You Know…that pistachio nuts may help lower your LDL cholesterol and protect against heart disease?

According to multiple studies, pistachio nuts may play a key role in lowering “bad” cholesterol.

That’s valuable information for the 71 million Americans who have high blood cholesterol, a condition that puts them in danger of coronary heart disease.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only one in three people with high cholesterol has the condition under control.  That’s very risky, because when cholesterol builds up in the blood vessels, the arteries harden, restricting blood flow.  And when blood flow to the heart is blocked, a heart attack occurs.

In conjunction with a heart healthy diet, a handful or two of pistachio nuts a day may help lower your cholesterol and keep you safe from a cardiovascular event.

Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 

Not all cholesterol is bad, which is why looking at your total cholesterol number is deceiving. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” type of cholesterol that protects against heart disease by wiping out the bad cholesterol loitering in your bloodstream. A high level of “good” HDL increases your total cholesterol number, but that’s not a bad thing.  To assess your risk for heart disease, focus on the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood.  Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” type of cholesterol that oxidizes and seeps into your blood vessels, causing inflammation and plaque buildup, and increasing your risk of heart attack.

The Pistachio—Cholesterol Connection 

Overall, studies show that eating three oz of pistachios a day (that’s approximately two handfuls) can increase your HDL cholesterol by an average of 15%.  Remember: the higher your HDL, the healthier your blood vessels and your heart.

A well-cited Pennsylvania State University study also showed that pistachio nuts can actually lower your LDL cholesterol by as much as 12%.

In the Penn State study, adults with higher than normal LDL ate a diet made up of 35% total fat and 11% saturated fat for two weeks.  They then embarked on three different diets for four weeks each, with a two-week break in between.

  • Diet #1: The typical low-fat diet of 25% total fat and 8% saturated fat with no pistachios.
  • Diet #2: A similar diet but with 10% of calories from pistachios (1.5 oz per day, or about 1/4 cup).
  • Diet #3: A similar diet but with 20% of calories from pistachios (3 oz per day, or about 1/2 cup).

The pistachio-enriched diets resulted in higher antioxidant levels of beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamin E, and lower oxidized LDL in the blood.  And the LDL-lowering effect was dose responsive, meaning more pistachios gave more benefit:

When participants ate a handful of pistachios (diet 2) they saw a 9% reduction in LDL
When they ate 2 handfuls (diet 3) they saw a 12% drop

These reductions weren’t enough to bump participants’ cholesterol levels into optimal range, but they were enough to take them out of the “borderline high” designation.

Interestingly, the low-fat diet showed no impact on LDL cholesterol levels.  Researchers theorize that the low-fat diet skimped on polyunsaturated fats—which are loaded with heart-healthy omega 3s—and loaded up on carbohydrates.

Whether you eat one handful or two, pistachios are a healthy alternative to junk food treats.  With every crunch, you’re infusing your body with minerals such as thiamin, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and iron, and shoring up your antioxidant defenses with vitamin B6, lutein, and beta-carotene.