September marks the start of the season for many varieties of nuts, and our own Kristen Rezabek — MG class of 2013 and a Registered Dietician — gives us the news on nuts and nutrition.
Despite their high fat content nuts are making a big comeback in the diet. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed a qualified health claim which states “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove eating 1 ½ ounces of per day of most nuts…may lower risk of heart disease.” So far this claim (based on a small number of studies) is allowed on almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts. Research suggests nuts may also be beneficial in reducing risk for diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and may even help people lose weight.
What’s in the nut that has so many of us reaching for a jar of dry roasted?
Nuts are a good source of monounsaturated fat, which may help lower blood cholesterol levels. Research has shown that nuts (particularly almonds, walnuts, peanuts and pecans) may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. A Harvard study found people who eat nuts regularly had lower risk for heart attack.
Nuts are also a rich source of protein, fiber, and provide key vitamins and minerals such as folic acid, niacin, magnesium, selenium, and zinc. Nuts are high in vitamin E, an antioxidant, which helps protect us from heart disease and cancer. Sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, and peanut butter are some of the best sources of vitamin E. Nuts are high in a plant chemical called resveratrol which may also help fight cancer. Nuts have even been linked to lowering blood pressure. And of course nuts are a cholesterol free food.
For a long time nuts were considered the bad guy because of the amount of fat and calories contained in just a small serving. And certainly eating a half jar of Planters peanuts at a time can really pack on the pounds. The most important thing when eating nuts is to watch the portion you take. The recommendation is 1-2 ounces of nuts a day, generally a small amount that fits within the palm of your hand. In fact one ounce of nuts equals 18 pecan halves or eight walnuts, and has approximately 200 calories per serving.
Interesting research has shown that eating nuts as part of a healthy diet may help with weight loss. This seems counterintuitive since nuts are high in calories and fat. However, researchers at Purdue University found including almonds along with a calorie-controlled diet helped people maintain or lose weight. While we are still unclear on why nuts may aid weight loss, speculation has focused on the fat in nuts helping to enhance feelings of fullness or satiety. If you are adding nuts to your diet make sure to substitute them for something else (say that candy bar, cookie, bag of chips, etc).
Stick to a small handful of nuts so calories don’t add up. Avoid heavily salted, sweetened or glazed nuts as these are higher in sodium and sugar. The fact is eating 1½ ounces of nuts a day may help reduce your chance of heart disease if you keep the saturated fats and cholesterol in your diet low. Remember all nuts are not created equal: Almonds have the most fiber, almonds and hazelnuts are high in vitamin E, pecans are high in cancer-fighting plant chemicals, Brazil nuts are high in selenium (another cancer fighter), cashews and pistachios are high in potassium, and walnuts are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. So mix up the types of nuts you eat to get some variety.
Ways to get Nutty!
Nuts are great to snack on just the way they are, or you can use them to jazz up other dishes and give them some crunch.
- Use nuts as a condiment. Sprinkle chopped or whole nuts on cereal, soup, salads, yogurt, chicken, fish or cooked veggies.
- Eat a variety of nuts. Try chopped hazelnuts, walnuts, or pecans in a green salad with fresh or dried fruit. Make pesto with walnuts in place of pine nuts. Chopped walnuts or pistachios sprinkled over pasta served with a light cream sauce makes for a delicious meal.
- Mix finely chopped nuts into a breadcrumb mixture for meats, fish, or poultry. Liven up a fruit crisp by mixing chopped nuts with oatmeal, cinnamon, a touch of butter and brown sugar for a great topping.
- Toasting nuts in the oven to a rich golden brown brings out even more of their flavor.
- Make your own trail mix for an easy on the go snack with mixed nuts, seeds, and assorted dried fruits.
- Add nuts or seeds to baked goods such as cookies, muffins, and quick breads. Try substituting half the fat with applesauce to make a healthier treat.
- Spread peanut butter on toast, celery sticks, apple slices, or the old lunch standard PB&J.
- Make an Asian style dipping sauce with peanut butter like the recipe below to serve with chicken, tofu, or vegetable wraps. Click the link for a downloadable pdf copy:
A Note on Nuts and Diverticulosis: Many people have an intestinal disorder where portions of their intestines have small pockets called diverticula that can trap food and become inflamed causing diverticulitis. For years doctors said to avoid nuts and seeds (including fruit with seeds such as berries and tomatoes) for fear these foods might cause a flare up. However there is no evidence nuts and seeds cause diverticulitis and in fact eating these high fiber foods may help prevent a flare up. The best advice is to continue to enjoy these foods, unless you feel strongly that they cause a flare up of diverticulitis. Then focus on getting other high fiber foods in your diet such as whole grain foods, fruits, and vegetables.
For more of Kristen’s advice on healthy eating, visit her at Rezberry.