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Research Behind Walnuts
WASHINGTON, DC - In 2008, research funded by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has found evidence that a daily dose of walnuts – equal to two servings a day in humans – reduces the growth of breast cancer tumors in mice. The study is the first to investigate the effect of walnut consumption on cancer.
“This is an intriguing finding that needs to be repeated, and ultimately confirmed in humans,” said Karen Collins, M.S., R.D., Nutrition Advisor for AICR. “But it fits with some of what we’ve seen from other studies. We know that walnuts have a lot to offer, such as omega-3 fat, vitamin E, and other antioxidants. Many of these substances have already shown anti-cancer potential individually.”
The study appears in the issue of the journal Nutrition and Cancer.
Walnuts in the Diet Slow Tumor Growth
A group of 22 mice with human breast cancer tumors was divided into two groups. One group was fed ground walnuts daily in the amount equivalent to two ounces (28 walnut halves) for humans. The comparison group consumed a diet supplemented with corn oil, along with amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber that were similar to the amounts occurring in the walnut diet.
After 35 days, the breast cancer tumors of the walnut-fed mice were only about half the size of the tumors in the mice that were not fed walnuts.
“What this study showed is that we had a significant suppression of cell proliferation in the walnut-fed group,” said W. Elaine Hardman, Ph.D., lead investigator and associate professor at the Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. “The time it took the tumor to double in size was 11.1 days for the corn oil fed mice compared to 23.3 days in the walnut fed group.”
That such a small dose of walnuts could exert such influence intrigued investigators. “I was surprised by the results because, compared to most dietary studies, we were adding a very small amount to the diet and I didn’t think this amount would be enough to suppresses the growth as much as it did,” Hardman added.
Walnut Components Display Anti-Cancer Potential
One of those components, a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), sets walnuts apart from other nuts, according to AICR’s Collins. “Walnuts are one of the few plant foods that contain this kind of omega-3 fat, which protects against heart disease, inflammation and – potentially – cancer as well.” Canola oil and flaxseed are also sources of ALA.
Studies suggest that omega-3 fats exert their influence by increasing the production of hormone-like, anti-inflammatory compounds. There is growing evidence that inflammation plays a role in the development of cancer.
Other much-studied cancer-protective substances within walnuts include gamma-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E), phytosterols and flavonoids. Lab studies funded by AICR and other organizations have shown that these compounds may slow cancer cell growth and fight inflammation.
“If it’s not the omega-3 acting alone to prevent cell proliferation, it may be a synergy among some or all of the compounds,” said Collins. “Each one of these substances might be present in too small an amount on its own, but when they all come at [the tumor] from different directions, they may have an effect.”
A Healthy, but Calorie-Dense, Food
“Calories still count, even in a healthy food that has plenty of nutrients,” she said. “It’s not a matter of adding extra handfuls of walnuts to your normal diet, it’s about substituting walnuts for other foods so you don’t increase your calorie consumption.” Because once you start gaining weight, Collin said, “you start to cross out a lot of the health benefits.”
Dr. Hardman co-authored the study with Gabriela Ion, Ph.D., also of the Marshall University School of Medicine in West Virginia.
The study was funded by grants from the American Institute for Cancer Research with a matching grant from the California Walnut Commission. Neither group had any input on the study design or findings.
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed more than $86 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its website, www.aicr.org. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International. Walnut photo courtesy of shutterstock.