An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but according to new research - so could a handful of nuts.
People who eat a small amount of nuts per day are 20% less likely to die than those who do not, according to a recent study.
But that's not the only good news for nut fans: regular eaters were found to be slimmer than those who didn't eat nuts, on the contrary to alleviate the widespread worry that eating lost of nuts can make you fat.
"The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29% in deaths from heart disease – the major killer of people in America," said senior author Charles S. Fuchs.
"But we also saw a significant reduction – 11% – in the risk of dying from cancer."
Whether any specific type or types of nuts were crucial to the protective effect couldn't be determined. However, the reduction in mortality was similar both for peanuts and for "tree nuts" – walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, cashews, pistachios and pine nuts.
In the largest study of its kind, researchers tapped into databases of two well-known ongoing observational studies over a period of 30 years - observing lifestyle habits of more than 100,000 people.
Participants in the studies filled out detailed food questionnaires every two to four years. With each food questionnaire, participants were asked to estimate how often they consumed nuts in a serving size of one ounce - a typical small packet of peanuts.
Sophisticated data analysis methods were used to rule out other factors - such as smoking, exercise - that might have accounted for the mortality benefits.
"In all these analyses, the more nuts people ate, the less likely they were to die over the 30-year follow-up period," explained Ying Bao, first study author.
Those who ate nuts less than once a week had a seven percent reduction in mortality; once a week, 11 percent reduction; two to four times per week, 13 percent reduction; five to six times per week, 15 percent reduction, and seven or more times a week, a 20 percent reduction in death rate.
The authors do note that this large study cannot definitively prove cause and effect; nonetheless, the findings are strongly consistent with "a wealth of existing observational and clinical trial data to support health benefits of nut consumption on many chronic diseases." In fact, based on previous studies, the US Food and Drug Administration concluded in 2003 that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts "may reduce the risk of heart disease."
The report, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was led by researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the Harvard School of Public Health.