For years, savvy dieters have shunned nuts because of their high-fat content. But dieters can rejoice. The heart-healthy fats, high fiber, and phytochemical content of nuts have catapulted these nutritious nuggets into health food heaven. The key is portion control.
Over the past several years, numerous studies have shown the healthful nature of nuts. Nuts are a powerhouse of good nutrition, packed with protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, copper, and antioxidants. Although they are high in fat, it's unsaturated heart-healthy fats. Studies show that diets that contain nuts help reduce the risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and help control weight.
Bad fats that pose health problems come primarily from saturated and trans fats, neither of which are found in most nuts. Instead, most nuts are loaded with good fats: -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Some nuts, such as walnuts, boast a rich source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, similar to salmon.
In July 2003, the FDA approved the first qualified health claim. Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease, the FDA says.
Packaging for walnuts, peanuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios can now proudly make this claim. Cashews and macadamia nuts did not qualify for the health claim due to their higher fat content.
Pump Up the Heart
The healthy fats appear to be the secret nut ingredient that prevents heart disease. Adding to the power of the heart-healthy fats, the fiber in nuts has also been shown to lower cholesterol levels.
"Our epidemiological studies have shown eating about one ounce of nuts every day will reduce the risk of heart disease in the long run by 30%," Frank Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Nuts can also help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol and raise HDL "good" cholesterol. "Almost all types of nuts have high amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and when you substitute this kind of good fat for carbohydrates and saturated fat, your LDL will go down," Hu said.
There is an epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the U.S., but research suggests that nuts may lower the risk. Women who eat nuts at least five times a week had a 30% reduction in diabetes risk over women who never ate nuts, according to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers are not sure if it is the fiber, magnesium, healthy fat, or phytochemicals responsible for the lowered risk.
Dream Come True
To find a food that is delicious, nutritious, and filling is a dieter's dream.
Several studies have shown that eating small amounts of nuts helps dieters lose weight because the fiber and protein help dieters feel full longer. Dieters are less like to overeat and more successful at losing weight.
Dieters also stick with their eating plans longer if nuts are included, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dieters did not feel like they were on a diet when they were allowed to eat nuts.
Other studies have shown that women who snack on nuts tend to weigh less than those who do not.
1 Ounce, Not 1 Pound
When you add nuts to your diet, you add the health benefits but you also add calories.
The goal is to eat nuts instead of other fat sources in the diet. Maureen Ternus, RD, nutrition expert for the International Tree Nut Council, recommends substituting nuts for other, less nutrient-dense foods.
"It is important to decrease calories from other sources, otherwise extra calories from nuts can negate the health benefits by leading to weight gain," she advises.
A 1 oz serving of nuts contains between 160 and 200 calories, most of which come from the heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat.
The size of a 1 oz serving of nuts also varies depending on the type of nut. That's about 47 shelled pistachios, 30 peanuts, 24 almonds, 20 pecan halves or hazelnuts, and 14 walnut halves.
People usually eat nuts on their own, by the handful, which can be a dangerous practice. You won't feel deprived when you top your apple or celery slices with peanut butter. Keep portions small and avoid mindless eating:
- Pre-portion nuts in small bags -- a great snack to take on the go or to the office.
- Choose nuts in the shell; you will probably eat fewer since it takes time to crack them.
- Take a handful and put the package away before you start munching.
- Sprinkle nuts on a soup or salad instead of croutons or cheese.
- Snack on nuts instead of pretzels or chips.
- Top yogurt with nuts instead of granola.
Add the delicious flavor and crunch of nuts to all kinds of foods from sweet to savory. Toasting them first will bring out their flavor and enhance a simple dish.
- Top hot or cold cereal with nuts for a nourishing breakfast.
- Sprinkle nuts on top of nonfat yogurt.
- Pasta comes alive when sprinkled with chopped nuts.
- Slivered almonds do wonders for everything from chicken to desserts.
- Add crunch and satiety to bread, pancakes, waffles, or muffins with nuts.
- Mix nuts with light cream cheese for a delicious spread.
- Add nuts to popcorn for a tasty snack.
- Enhance the flavor of steamed veggies with a handful of nuts.
Go nutty with 1 oz of nuts per day. You'll reap all kinds of health benefits.