Going Nutty For Nuts
You have to feel sorry for nuts. No, I'm not talking about people! I'm talking about the hard-shelled fruits of some plants, such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, etc. For years, especially during the 70's when low-fat diets were in vogue, the poor nut was maligned for its very high fat content. At the time, no one was interested in hearing that they are actually healthy for you. Sure they are calorically dense as you can see from the following table (1 ounce is about 18-24 nuts depending upon the nut):
Total Fat (g)
Sat. Fat (g)
But being caloric weak only means that you should not just eat them by the handy. You have to think when you're eating them. One suggestion to keep you from overeating them is to count them out of the container into a dish. Put the container away. Now enjoy.
Why are nuts good for you?
Nuts are a great source of protein. Just check out the protein level in almonds, pistachios and walnuts. That's almost the same amount of protein found in a large egg. They're rich in fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants (such as selenium and vitamin E). With recent research on nuts, we've also found out that they are high in plant sterols (also known as phytosterols – "phyto" meaning plant), which could exert cholesterol-lowering properties. That's good news when it comes to heart health.
While nuts are high in fat, at least they're high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, also known as the "good" fats). These, too, have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol (the unhealthy blood cholesterol). In 2003, the FDA approved a health claim – "evidence suggests but does not prove" that eating nuts reduces heart disease risk – for 7 kinds of nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts). That's not to say that other nuts are unhealthy but the claim was based on the amount of planned fat in a serving size.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A quick review of the total grams of omega-3 fatty acids in certain nuts, seeds and oils show why walnuts are at the head of the class:
Total omega-3 fatty acid (g)
Pecans, dry roasted
From an omega-3 perspective, you can understand why walnuts and flax seeds have gotten so much press. (I know that flax is a seed not a nut, but I wanted you to see how healthy flax seeds can be.) I'm disappointed to see pecans come in so low on the list because I like pecans better than walnuts. I do not find them as bitter.
Antioxidants – ORAC value
There are other measures of how healthy a nut is. For one, the amount of antioxidants in a food tells you how protective it is against free radical damage in your body. There are many chemical reactions that occur in the body, some of which create free radicals – molecules running around trying to find an electron so they can return to a neutral electrical state. While those free radical molecules have become happy stealing from others, they've just created new free radicals. Some of this can be eliminated by providing, in the form of foods rich in antioxidants, chemicals that would have been happy to donate an electron and not become a menace to the rest of the body.
For us to know what foods these are, there is a way of measuring the antioxidant levels of foods called the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) value. Again, walnuts come out high on the chart. Now my beloved pecans even beat out the walnuts. The higher the ORAC value, the more antioxidants in the food.
Pecans, dry roasted
How to Get More Nuts in Your Diet
Nuts are such an easy food to add to your diet. Consider some of the following ideas:
- Eat them as your snack instead of cookies or chips.
- Use nuts as the source of protein in your recipes, eliminating the meat ingredient.
- Add crunch to your salad with nuts.
- Add nuts to your cereal or yogurt.
- Make sandwiches with spreads made from these nuts.
The best thing about nuts is they taste so good and are quite filling and satisfying. So go nutty for nuts without going nuts!