By Susan Burke March
Nuts are healthy additions to your diet — as long as you stay clued in to how much you’re eating. Nuts are very high in fat, with some containing as much as 80% of their calories from fat, but the fat is considered “good fat,” the type of fat that supports heart health and a lot more!
Way back in the summer of 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim for several varieties of nuts. Research suggested that eating 1.5 ounces daily and following a calorie-controlled diet that was low in saturated fat and cholesterol “may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts may carry this lofty claim. The research appears to show that these nuts help lower blood cholesterol, inflammation and insulin resistance.
More than decade later, there’s new evidence to suggest that people who nosh on nuts live longer, healthier lives.
Nuts = Health
The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine recently detailed findings from two major research studies, which included a total of more than 170,000 participants. The findings: both studies linked nut consumption to longevity.
Scientists observed over a 30-year period that people who consumed nuts almost daily lowered their risk of dying by about 20% compared to people who never ate nuts.
Those who ate nuts seven or more times weekly had a 29% lower risk of dying from heart disease — and an 11% lower risk from dying from cancer!
A Harvard School of Public Health article notes that walnuts are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential fat found also in fatty fish. Researchers also found nuts to be rich with arginine (an amino acid that is linked to heart health), vitamin E, folic acid and potassium.
- Almonds are a good source of calcium.
- Pecans contain a plant sterol recommended for prostate health.
- Brazil nuts are high in selenium, a mineral that has antioxidant properties and may help protect cells from damage.
- Peanuts are rich in folate, a vitamin crucial to human growth. By the way, peanuts are legumes, and grow underground, as opposed to “tree nuts”. They provide the best source of concentrated protein in the plant kingdom, more than 7 grams per ounce.
- One ounce of pistachios has as much potassium as half a large banana.
So, which nuts should you favor? Hmm… there really doesn’t appear to be a top nut! Whether you opt for almonds, walnuts or pistachios, it seems you’ll lower your risk of dying sooner.
It’s a shell of a thing, but frequent nut consumers are linked with healthier lifestyle habits, too. Nut eaters exercise more, are less likely to smoke, and are less likely to be overweight or obese.
But what about nuts being high in fat?
Well, we know that all fats are not equal — and nuts are good sources of healthy fat. However, all fat is equal in terms of calories — all fat has 9 calories per gram, more than double the calories of protein and carbohydrate, which have 4 calories per gram.
So, how can you have your nuts and manage your weight best? By changing how you eat those nuts!
Information from the Pistachio Health Institute cited two preliminary behavioral nutrition studies from Eastern Illinois University.
The first study tested the theory that you may be able fool yourself that you’re full by watching what you eat — literally. It’s easy to grab a handful of nuts and chomp them down, but what happens when you have to take the time to shell those monsters?
In one experiment, the nut eaters were satisfied with less — because it took them longer to eat. Those who had to shell their nuts ate 41% fewer calories when they were served in-shell pistachios versus pre-shelled pistachios.
In the second experiment, student participants who left pistachio shells behind on their desk as they were noshing reduced their calorie consumption by 18% compared to participants whose discarded shells were routinely removed throughout the day. Those empty pistachio shells may have helped them eat less by acting as a “visual cue” to remind them how many they’d eaten. Thirty whole pistachio kernels contain only about 100 calories.
Another bonus: The protein and healthy fat from nuts can help you feel fuller longer
Low fat is out of favor. The thinking behind low fat diets was that since fat is the most caloric nutrient, cutting back on all fat is the best solution for weight loss. However the research doesn’t back this up. In fact, compared to a low-fat diet, more weight was lost on a healthy Mediterranean diet, that includes nuts, fatty fish, and olive oil. Nut fat is a healthy fat, and nuts are especially satiating, having a perfect combination of fat, protein, and fiber.
The pistachio studies illustrate a very practical strategy. We know that nuts are delicious and it is so very easy to lose track of how many you’re eating. So measure out the portion before you start munching — and be sure to keep those shells in a separate bowl to remind yourself of what you’ve consumed.
On average, an ounce of shelled nuts ranges from a “skinny” 160 calories for pistachios (approximately 49 kernels) to 200 calories for pecans (approximately 19 halves).
In a nutshell
- All nuts are naturally cholesterol-free and very low in saturated fat and sodium.
- Nuts contain protein, vitamins and minerals, carbohydrate and fiber.
- Nuts are rich in immunity-promoting phytochemicals, which are important in preventing heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases.
Eat your favorite nuts roasted, raw, salted or “naked” — they’re all nuggets of good nutrition and although they’re somewhat pricey, especially in a non-nut-growing region such as Ecuador, a little goes a long way — remember, one serving is only about 1 ½ oz. If they’re drenched in oil, or coated with chocolate, the nutritional benefits are outweighed by excess fat and sugar.
As with all fruits and vegetables, nuts are best purchased organic, if you can find them. If you’re living in the USA, the USDA 100% Organic certification is reliable. An article in Livestrong.com notes that in the States, almonds, pistachios and peanuts are best bought organic because of pesticide levels. In Ecuador, it appears that most nuts are imported from other South American countries. I’ve bought pistachios (in the shell), and shelled almonds, walnuts, pecans and cashews here in Cuenca, in various mercados and SuperMaxi, both shelled and in-the-shell. Shelled mani (peanuts) are plentiful. Practice your español! Me gustaría algunas nueces, por favor – (I would like some walnuts, please) or almonds (almendras). Click here to learn more! As always, feel free to share your favorite local vendors and your purchasing tips in the comments below.
About Food: Nut Nutrition Comparison Chart: http://foodreference.about.com/od/food_reference_charts/a/Nut-Nutritional-Comparison-Chart.htm
MayoClinic.org: What Amount of Nuts is Considered Healthy? http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/nuts/art-20046635?pg=2
New England Journal of Medicine: Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1307352
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Summary of Qualified Health Claims Subject to Enforcement Discretion. http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm073992.htm#cardio
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com