Nuts for You!

When patients ask me to recommend healthy snacks, I tell them, “Snack on nuts!” Compared to many other snack foods, nuts are highest in nutritional value. Nutrient-rich nuts may contribute to weight management as well.

One of my patients recently quipped, “I never met a nut I didn’t like.” There are many types of nuts: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, filberts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts, to name a number of popular varieties. (Peanuts are technically considered to be legumes since they grow underground, but they share health benefits with true nuts.) All are nutrient-dense, i.e. you get a lot of nutritional benefit from a small amount of food. For example, a handful of almonds – about one ounce – contains only 160 calories, but provides 6 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, and beneficial amounts of vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, monounsaturated fat, potassium, phosphorus, and iron.

A study conducted at Purdue University reported that patients who added almonds to their diets didn’t gain weight or see their body fat percentage rise. Due to their protein and fiber content, almonds slow the absorption of carbohydrates; they also help you feel satisfied and full. In a Harvard University study, researchers found that dieters who ate peanuts and peanut butter found it easier to stick to their diets. Of course, nuts should be used sparingly because of their high caloric content. Also, limit your intake of Brazil nuts to no more than two a day because of their high selenium content.

Monounsaturated fat from nuts can lower “bad,” i.e. LDL cholesterol levels and boost “good” – HDL – cholesterol levels. Peanuts, walnuts, and almonds, in particular, contain plant sterols, shown to lower cholesterol. Resveratrol – a natural compound found in red wine and shown to lower heart disease risk – is another component. Researchers found that people who ate as few as five ounces of nuts a week as part of an overall heart-healthy diet had 35% lower risk of developing heart disease compared to those who ate nuts less than once a month.

The mix of fat and protein in nuts results in their very low glycemic load, such that whatever glucose they release enters the bloodstream gradually. Thus, nuts help maintain steady blood sugar levels and provide sustained energy. In another Harvard study, researchers discovered that women who ate one serving (about a handful) of nuts five times a week were significantly less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who seldom ate them. Nuts are also loaded with magnesium, a mineral known to slash the risk of diabetes and perhaps even increase the sensitivity of cells to insulin. Hazelnuts and cashews specifically contain the most copper, a much-needed nutrient for diabetics.

Remarkably, it has been observed that a typical walnut looks like a miniature brain: left and right hemispheres, upper cerebrum, and lower cerebellum. Even the folds on the walnut are similar to those on the neocortex. In fact, walnut consumption helps the body produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter essential for brain functioning.

A healthy alternative to whole nuts are almond, cashew, and peanut butters. These can be spread on bread, crackers, rice cakes, or fruit. Nuts can be ground and sprinkled on foods as well. Consider roasting, steaming, or blanching, and add nuts to other dishes in order to round out a healthy diet.