Pecan pie may be an autumnal favourite, but snacking on the nutritious nuts every day could help to lower your cholesterol.
Elevated levels of the fatty substance cholesterol in our blood can block our blood vessels, putting us at risk of heart disease or strokes.
Rich in good fats, fibre and protein, nuts are known to be a nutritious addition to a healthy lifestyle.
To better understand the potential of pecans specifically, scientists from the University of Georgia recruited 56 adults who were at a high risk of heart disease.
Results – published in The Journal of Nutrition – reveal those who consumed 68g (2.3oz) of pecans every day for just eight weeks saw their level of "bad" cholesterol drop by between 6% and 9%.
Even a 1% decrease may help to ward off heart disease, "so these reductions are definitely clinically meaningful".
"This dietary intervention, when put in the context of different intervention studies, was extremely successful," said study author Professor Jamie Cooper.
"We had some people who actually went from having high cholesterol at the start of the study to no longer being in that category after the intervention."
High cholesterol is one of the key risk factors for heart disease, which kills one person every three minutes in the UK.
Eating fatty food is a recognised cause of elevated cholesterol, which can then be reduced with a more nutritious diet.
The 56 adults – aged 30 to 75 – were overweight or had high cholesterol, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.
The participants were split into three groups – the first added 68g of pecans, around 470 calories, to their regular daily diet. The second group swapped 470 calories out of their diet, replacing them with pecans. Finally, the third group did not eat any amount of the nuts.
Eight weeks later, those who consumed pecans – whether on top of their regular diet or by swapping out other calories for the nuts – saw their level of "bad" cholesterol go down.
Read more: Go plant-based to ward off heart disease
Good cholesterol, also known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), carries cholesterol to the liver for removal. In contrast, bad cholesterol – or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – accumulates in the arteries.
"The addition of pecans to the diet not only produced a greater and more consistent reduction in total cholesterol and LDL compared to many other lifestyle interventions, but may also be a more sustainable approach for long-term health," said Professor Cooper.
"Some research shows even a 1% reduction in LDL is associated with a small reduction of coronary artery disease risk, so these reductions are definitely clinically meaningful."
Watch: Why pecans should be your nut of choice
In a second part of the experiment, all of the participants ate a fatty meal.
Those who had added pecans to their diet had reduced levels of fat in their blood after the high-fat dish, while those who replaced their regular foods for the nuts went on to have lower blood sugar levels.
Before the fatty meal, both of these two groups had reduced fat in their blood.
"Whether people added them or substituted other foods in the diet for them, we still saw improvements and pretty similar responses in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in particular," said Professor Cooper.
To incorporate more pecans into your diet, try:
Mixing pecans with other nuts and unsweetened dry fruit – like raisins, cranberries and goji berries – for an energy-dense snack
Sprinkling pecans on porridge. Add sliced banana and a drizzle of honey for a satisfying breakfast
Adding pecans to salads for an extra crunch
Decorating cakes and biscuits with pecans to add a nutritious twist to an indulgent treat
Watch: Are pecans safe for dogs?