Nuts (and seeds) are healthy foods that are rich in unsaturated fats, magnesium and copper, with smaller amounts of protein, fiber and iron.
But they’re also high in calories, a quarter cup (about 1 ounce) providing more than 200 calories, with almost 80 percent of their calories coming from fat. So how can this high-fat, high-calorie food be good for your health? And your waistline?
A recent review of scientific studies showed that people who ate a 1-ounce serving of nuts on five or more days of the week had a reduced risk of heart disease compared with people who consumed no nuts (British Journal of Nutrition, 2006). The nuts in the study were those commonly eaten in the United States – almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts. On average, these nuts contain mostly monounsaturated fat (59 percent), some polyunsaturated fat (27 percent) and just a little saturated fat (14 percent). Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats that help lower cholesterol levels in the blood and improve overall health. Health benefits especially were associated with walnuts and almonds. In numerous studies, when walnuts or almonds were substituted for other fats in the diet, participants’ LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and total cholesterol levels dropped, and some showed a rise in HDL cholesterol (the good kind).
People who eat nuts tend to be leaner and more active than people who do not eat nuts. There is some preliminary evidence from studies that eating nuts regularly may lower triglycerides (fat in the blood), raise HDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation and relax artery linings. Nuts may protect against heart disease and other chronic diseases by providing fiber, vegetable protein and the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as other phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants clear out the free radicals and other damaging substances that are by-products of our metabolism of food.
The recommended amount of nuts to include in your daily diet is about 1½ servings, or a quarter cup. This will add 250 calories to your daily intake, so make sure you compensate by eating less of something else. The type of nut you choose doesn’t seem to matter, but limit the amount of macadamias and Brazil nuts because they have a higher ratio of saturated fat to polyunsaturated fat. Try to choose raw or roasted nuts with little or no salt added. Roasting nuts in oil doesn’t appear to change the calories or the amount of saturated fat in them, so roasted either with or without oil is fine. Portion control is key – don’t buy a large tub of nuts if you can’t stop at a quarter cup. Or place premeasured nuts in a bowl for a snack. Be careful with nut mixes, as many have added ingredients that increase the calories, sugar and salt content.
Nut butters, including peanut, almond and cashew butters, haven’t been studied to measure if they impart the same health benefits as whole nuts. Plus, many add in other ingredients and unhealthy hydrogenated oils, so read the label before you buy.
One of the cheapest and easiest ways to eat nuts is to buy them raw from the bulk section of the grocery store and dry roast them at home. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees, set raw nuts on baking sheet (you also can lightly coat the nuts with vegetable oil and add a small amount of salt) and roast for 5 to 10 minutes. Be careful not to over roast, as nuts keep cooking after you take them out of the oven because of their high fat content. They should be fragrant and lightly brown when done.
jeanine@swcommunity foundation.org. Jeanine Justice has 20 years of experience in nutrition. She is the coordinator for Healthy Lifestyle La Plata Coalition.