I never overlook an opportunity to extol the virtues of nuts, and that includes pecans. 

New research out of Loma Linda University (which has penned much of the research about nuts) found that specific naturally occurring antioxidants in pecans support heart health and prevent disease. The results appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Nutrition.  

Pecans contain high amounts of the various forms of Vitamin E, including tocopherols and tocotrienols.  Pecans also contain numerous “phenolic compounds,” many of which have great antioxidant power. Pecans are especially rich in a form of vitamin E called gamma-tocopherol. It was found that after eating pecans, gamma-tocopherol levels in the body doubled, and oxidation of LDL cholesterol decreased by 33 percent. Oxidized LDL is believed to cause inflammation within the arteries, the harbinger of cardiovascular disease.

"Our tests show that eating pecans increases the amount of healthy antioxidants in the body," says LLU researcher Ella Haddad, PhD, associate professor in the School of Public Health, Department of Nutrition. "This protective effect is important in helping to prevent development of various diseases, including cancer and heart disease."

Dr. Haddad analyzed biomarkers in blood and urine samples from study participants (a total of 16 men and women between the ages 23 and 44) who ate a sequence of three diets composed of whole pecans, pecans blended with water, or a control meal that lacked pecans. The pecan meals contained about three ounces of the nut. Samples were taken prior to meals and at intervals up to 24 hours after eating.

Following the test meals composed of whole pecans and blended pecans, researchers found that amounts of gamma-tocopherols (vitamin E) in the body doubled eight hours after both meals, and oxygen radical absorbance capabilities (ORAC-a scientific method for measuring antioxidant power in the blood) increased 12 and 10 percent respectively two hours after the meals. In addition, following the whole-pecan meal, oxidized LDL cholesterol decreased by 30 percent (after 2 hours), 33 percent (after 3 hours), and 26 percent (after 8 hours).

"This study is another piece of evidence that pecans are a healthy food," says Dr. Haddad. "Previous research has shown that pecans contain antioxidant factors. Our study shows that these antioxidants are indeed absorbed by the body and linger in the body for a long time, helping to prevent disease."

Research from Loma Linda University published earlier in the Journal of Nutrition showed that a pecan-enriched diet lowered levels of LDL cholesterol by 16.5 percent-more than twice the American Heart Association's Step I diet, which was used as the control diet in that study. Similarly, the pecan-enriched diet lowered total cholesterol levels by 11.3 percent (also twice as much as the Step I diet).

The USDA ranks pecans among the top 5 antioxidant foods on the planet.

But, won’t pecans, being high in oil, make you fat? Well, being a Texan, I eat pecans every day.  And I mean that literally. If a day passes in which I don’t eat some pecans, it’s probably because I fasted that day, which I occasionally do. And I am a lean, mean fighting machine. 40+ years of pecan-eating has not made me fat, and I dare say, it’s not going to.