Could eating pecans help curb obesity and diabetes?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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  • Rising rates of obesity and diabetes represent two severe public health crises.
  • A new mouse study suggests eating pecans could help curb obesity and diabetes, and related health issues.
  • Mice fed a high fat diet with pecans gained less weight and had fewer markers for diabetes than mice fed a high fat diet without.
  • Experts say the health benefits of pecans likely apply to other tree nuts as well.

Eating pecans could help prevent obesity, diabetes, and inflammation — but maybe hold the pie.

Mice that were fed a high fat diet that included whole pecans or pecan polyphenol extract were able to fend off obesity, fatty liver disease, and diabetes compared to mice fed a high fat diet without pecans or additives, researchers at the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition Salvador Zubiran in Mexico and the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Texas A&M University found.

The study, which appears in the MDPI open-access journal Nutrients, was partly funded by the Texas Pecan Board and the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Notably, while mice fed a 23% fat high fat diet gained 37% more weight than those on the control group’s diet (which was only 7% fat), those on the same high fat diet that were fed pecans or pecan extract only gained as much weight as the control group, signifying the nuts’ protective effect against excessive weight gain.

Additional benefits of the pecan-inclusive diet included lower cholesterol and insulin resistance, lower inflammation, higher oxygen consumption, mitochondrial activity (the “powerhouse of the cell”), heat generation within brown fat tissues, and other healthy biomarkers.

“Simply put, this means the body’s energy-burning processes are enhanced, which aids in weight management and overall health,” said Kelsey Costa, a registered dietitian and Health Research Specialist with the National Coalition on Healthcare (NCHC).

“Additionally, the study found a decrease in enlargement and presence of immune cells in both subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (around the organs) fat cells, which can often lead to inflammation and obesity-related complications,” Costa added.

“The study is interesting but not surprising as it reinforces what is known about gut health, inflammation, and its powerful effects on our metabolic health; all of the inflammatory conditions mentioned in this article can also be connected to gut health,” said Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian nutritionist also at NCHC. “The study shows that whole pecan and pecan polyphenol extract groups reduced dysbiosis, meaning these groups had an improved gut microbiome.”

While interest groups may have funded this research, experts say there are good reasons to believe in the benefits of pecans and other tree nuts’ impacts on health.

“While it’s essential to note that pecan interests partially funded the study, the findings align with a wealth of existing literature underscoring the health benefits of nuts,” Costa told Medical News Today. “Pecans, along with other nuts of similar composition, like walnuts and hazelnuts, are rich in polyunsaturated fats, dietary fiber, and polyphenols, substances known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”

“People are searching for healthier options, and we have now shown pecans are a healthy tool consumers have in their hands,” said Dr. Luis Cisneros-Zevallos, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and a professor of horticulture and food science in the Department of Horticultural Sciences in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in a press release.

That same press release touted pecans as a “superfood” — but others aren’t sure.

“The ‘superfoods‘ term is a marketing term and not one we would use in clinical practice,” Sauza said. “Headlines claiming ‘superfoods’ may lead to beliefs that simply adding pecans alone to their diet every day will result in weight loss and reduce their risk of diabetes; that simply is not true.”

“The argument can be made that all nuts (or most) are ‘superfoods,'” he added. “If pecans are a ‘superfood,’ then all nuts are.”

But even if pecans and other similar tree nuts have protective benefits against obesity and diabetes, how many should the average person eat? And how should they eat them?

The researchers converted the equivalent amount of pecans they gave the mice to human proportions, which worked out to 22-38 whole pecans daily for an average human weighing 132 pounds. By contrast, the recommended daily serving of pecans is only an ounce or around 19 pecans.

“So that’s quite a bit higher than the recommended daily serving,” Costa said. “Rather than significantly increasing your pecan consumption, it’s best to start with the recommended amount and gradually increase if desired, being mindful of other dietary needs and overall fat and calorie intake.”

Then there’s how you consume your pecans. Costa said one approach to getting more pecan polyphenols in the diet was to use defatted pecan flour in your cooking.

“Preparation matters when it comes to applying the findings of this study,” said Mrinal Pandit, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist at Oliva Skin and Hair Clinic. “Eating foods like pecan pie or sugary nuts will have very different impacts on metabolic health than simply consuming plain pecans.”

“In addition to their potential benefits for weight management and metabolic regulation, pecans are also an excellent source of essential nutrients like monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and fiber,” Pandit said. “Eating a handful of pecans each day can help satisfy cravings for unHealthy snacks and provide a nutritious boost to any meal. Furthermore, pecans can also be included as part of a Healthy diet when combined with other nutrient-rich foods in moderation.”

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