Living Well in Myanmar

Nuts and peanuts may be key to a long healthy live

Looking for a simple way to live longer? Perhaps eating more nuts is your answer. Epidemiologic research is starting to show clearly that frequent consumption of nuts prolongs life. 

Studies in 2008 and 2010 suggested a beneficial effect on heart disease and cholesterol. Other research has associated nuts with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, hypertension and gallstone disease. Now the first study showing a direct decrease in mortality has been published. In late 2013 the New England Journal of Medicine detailed the nut-eating habits and life-spans of 115,000 Americans over approximately 30 years. Study participants filled out a questionnaire every two to four years. In it, they noted how many servings (28 grams) of nuts they ate per week. 

People were less likely to die of any cause by eating nuts: 7percent less if they consumed nuts less than once per week, by 11pc less if they ate nuts once per week, by 13pc less for two to four times per week, by 15pc less for five to six times per week and 20pc for seven or more times per week.

It should be noted that the people who ate a lot of nuts tended to be healthier in other ways also. They were thinner, more physically fit, less likely to smoke and more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Statisticians attempted to account for these “confounders”, but the possibility remains that nuts contribute a bit less to lifespan than the numbers indicate. Also this study showed “association” rather than “causality”, meaning it does not prove that the nuts are the cause of longer living, only that people who eat nuts are observed to live longer.

The exact mechanism by which nuts might allow people to live longer is not clear. However, we know that nuts are nutrient dense foods. They are heavy in unsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Scientists have given people high-nut diets and then tested their blood, finding decreased inflammation, insulin resistance and vascular dysfunction. Each of these blood characteristics has established relationships to various chronic diseases.

Reducing the risk of dying by 20pc through a handful of nuts every day is going to be appealing to some of my patients in Yangon and California. As previously discussed in this column, nuts – along with vegetables, fish, beans and olive oil –are part of the “Mediterranean Diet”, which has been gaining momentum in recent years as our current best guide to healthy eating. For most people the statistical benefits of adhering to this diet surpasses what can be achieved with medicines and diagnostic testing.

While nuts are certainly available in various forms in Myanmar, and often added to Burmese salads, they are not a staple of the average diet. For some types of nuts, this may be because the price point puts them out of reach for the majority of citizens who are not middle-class. However the New England Journal study showed that peanuts, which are actually a legume, conferred the same benefit as tree nuts. 

Peanuts are widely available in street markets and from vendors, and a serving costs around K200. As the country begins to consider incorporating healthy eating into its public health messages, perhaps peanuts can be emphasised as an accessible lifestyle choice.  © Christoph Gelsdorf 2013