Nuts have had a long-time bad rap as a high-calorie, indulgent food that we should decline whenever tempted. True, nuts get more than half of their calories from fat. But there’s more to it than that.
We’ve got three reasons to fit nuts into healthy living:
- Eating plenty of nuts could actually lower the risk of heart disease, particularly for women.
- Nuts are high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
- Eating nuts in reasonable portions can also be a good way to maintain a healthy weight, or even lose weight!
Healthy for Your Heart
Nuts are rich in an amino acid that could be linked to heart benefits. This amino acid, called arginine, helps relax blood vessels, which can reduce the danger of coronary artery disease. A Harvard School of Public Health study showed that women who ate nuts regularly had a 32 percent lower risk of having a non-fatal heart attack compared to women who avoided nuts.
How can a high-fat food such as nuts be good for the heart? The biggest danger to the heart and arteries comes from saturated fats, found mostly in meat and high-fat dairy products. The fat in most nuts is unsaturated, the "friendlier" kind of fat that lowers LDLs, the so-called bad cholesterol. Cashews, almonds and peanuts are full of monounsaturated fats. Walnuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats similar to oils found in fish such as salmon.
Nuts are nutritious, too. In the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid, nuts are included with the protein-rich foods in the meat, poultry, fish, eggs and beans category. A one-third cup of nuts provides about five grams of protein and is equivalent to one ounce of lean meat. Almonds, cashews, pine nuts, peanuts, pistachios and walnuts are particularly high in protein.
Nuts are also packed with essential vitamins such as A and E, and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc. And their high fiber content helps lower cholesterol, too.
Nuts for a Healthy Weight
People who eat nuts regularly do not typically gain weight. Some even lose weight! The nutrients and fat in nuts tend to make you feel fuller longer. When you feel full from a small snack of nuts between meals, you are less likely to have the urge to pig out at your next meal. Nuts seem to satisfy appetites without causing weight gain, unlike high carb, low fat snacks such as pretzels, which don’t seem to be very filling. The people who lose weight while eating daily controlled portions of nuts seem to naturally self-adjust their calorie intake. This means they naturally eat fewer calories in later meals as a result of feeling satisfied from nuts.
Of course, moderation is everything. About one to 1-1/2 ounces of nuts are recommended per day to fall into the healthy category. This is approximately one handful. If you eat much beyond that, you’re eating a lot of calories (about 170 calories per handful of peanuts). Since it’s hard to practice restraint with the whole jar or bag nearby, get in the habit of taking your one handful in a special nut bowl, or use a recycled mint tin for a portable container.
Don’t want to eat nuts alone as a snack? Use nuts as an ingredient for an easy way to control your nut portions if you don’t trust your snacking habits. There are many creative and delicious ways to add nuts to your meals. Here are a few suggestions:
- Toss a handful of nuts into a salad, stir-fry, pasta or rice dish.
- Sprinkle chopped nuts on yogurt or cereal.
- Add nuts into the batter of breads, muffins or other baked goods.
- Top softened cheeses such as brie or camembert with chopped pistachios or walnuts.
- Sprinkle chopped pecans on potato soup or hazelnuts on split pea soup.
- Toss pecans, walnuts or pine nuts with bleu cheese or gorgonzola on spinach salad.
- Add toasted almonds or pine nuts to steamed vegetables and pasta dishes.
- Mix ground nuts into breading for fish or chicken.