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Science Daily (Dec. 9, 2009) — A diet that incorporates a daily dose of pistachios may help reduce the risk of lung and other cancers, according to data presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research Conference, held Dec. 6-9.
"It is known that vitamin E provides a degree of protection against certain forms of cancer. Higher intakes of gamma-tocopherol, which is a form of vitamin E, may reduce the risk of lung cancer," said Ladia M. Hernandez, M.S., R.D., L.D., senior research dietitian in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, and doctoral candidate at Texas Woman's University -- Houston Center.
"Pistachios are a good source of gamma-tocopherol. Eating them increases intake of gamma-tocopherol so pistachios may help to decrease lung cancer risk," she said.
Pistachios are known to provide a heart-healthy benefit by producing a cholesterol-lowering effect and providing the antioxidants that are typically found in food products of plant origin. Hernandez and colleagues conducted a six-week, controlled clinical trial to evaluate if the consumption of pistachios would increase dietary intake and serum levels of gamma-tocopherol. A pistachio-rich diet could potentially help reduce the risk of other cancers from developing as well, according to Hernandez.
"Because epidemiologic studies suggest gamma-tocopherol is protective against prostate cancer, pistachio intake may help," she said. "Other food sources that are a rich source of gamma-tocopherol include nuts such as peanuts, pecans, walnuts, soybean and corn oils."
The study, conducted at Texas Woman's University -- Houston Center, included 36 healthy participants who were randomized into either a control group or the intervention group consisting of a pistachio diet. There were 18 participants in the control group and 18 in the intervention group. There was a two-week baseline period, followed by a four-week intervention period in which the intervention group was provided with 68 grams (about 2 ounces or 117 kernels) of pistachios per day; the control group continued with their normal diet.
The effect on the intake and serum cholesterol-adjusted gamma-tocopherol was investigated. Intake was calculated using the Nutrition Data System for Research Version 2007, and consumption was monitored using diet diaries and by measuring the weights of the returned pistachios.
Hernandez and colleagues found a significant increase in energy-adjusted dietary intake of gamma-tocopherol at weeks three and four in those on the pistachio diet compared with those on the control diet. The similar effect was seen at weeks five and six among those on the pistachio diet compared with those on the control diet. For those on the pistachio diet, cholesterol-adjusted serum gamma-tocopherol was significantly higher at the end of the intervention period compared to baseline.
"Pistachios are one of those 'good-for-you' nuts, and 2 ounces per day could be incorporated into dietary strategies designed to reduce the risk of lung cancer without significant changes in body mass index," said Hernandez.
The nuts are full of antioxidants that protect cells from damage by harmful chemicals, called 'free radicals'.
The findings published in the Journal of Nutrition follows previous research by the same team that discovered pistachios help destroy bad cholesterol that can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
Professor Penny Kris-Etherton, of Pennsylvania State University, said: "Our previous study showed the benefits of pistachios in lowering lipids and lipoproteins, which are a risk factor for heart disease.
"This new study shows an additional effect of pistachios so now there are multiple health benefits of eating pistachios."
She and colleagues found pistachios are much richer in the main dietary antioxidants lutein, beta-carotene and gamma-tocopherol than other nuts.
Beta-carotene turns into vitamin A which prevents cancer and gamma-tocopherol is a common form of vitamin E that wards off heart disease. Lutein is found in dark green leafy vegetables and is important in vision and healthy skin.
It is believed antioxidants also prevent cholesterol from moving into the blood vessel walls and causing inflammation.
When the researchers tested the effects of pistachios on antioxidant levels they found participants had much more antioxidants in their blood and lower cholesterol concentrations when they ate the nuts.
In the experiment, they ate three different diets for a month - a normal cholesterol lowering diet with no nuts and two other similar food regimes with 1.5 ounces and 3 ounces of pistachios respectively.
Prof Kris-Etherton added: "Our results suggest that a heart-healthy diet including pistachios contributes to a decrease in serum oxidized-LDL levels, in part through cholesterol lowering, and also due to an added benefit of the antioxidants in the pistachios."