Everybody is talking about the health benefits of nuts these days and for good reason. Aside from simply being delicious and versatile, nuts are loaded with nutritional benefits, especially considering their compact nature. They are one of the best plant sources of protein, which makes them a great addition to salads and cereals for increased satiety and crunch. Their high fiber content helps to stabilize blood sugars when consumed with other healthy carbohydrates (think fruits and vegetables), and they contain phytonutrients, plant sterols, and antioxidants that are all beneficial.
Finally, and often the most confusing, is that nuts are quite high in fat, albeit the healthy poly- and monounsaturated fats, both of which have been shown to improve cardiovascular risk. The high fat content, however, means they are high in calories, too, so adding nuts to your diet should be done in moderation and at the expense of another, less-healthy snack. For example, nuts would be a great substitute for a bag of chips, pretzels, or processed cheese and cracker packs. They would also be a better addition to salads or cereal than dried fruit.
So, are they all created equal? In a word, no, but most of them contain the same general nutrients that are responsible for their stellar reputation. In fact, in 2003, the FDA approved a health claim for seven types of nuts stating, “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 oz. per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
What are the seven types, and what nuts aren’t quite as good for you?
The FDA claim refers to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts as the seven “wonder” nuts. Peanuts, even though they are officially in the legume family (like beans), still have the same benefits and are included on the list. The nuts not mentioned that you might be considering are Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias, which are not necessarily bad for you, but their saturated fat content is higher and, therefore, they did not make the cut. Chestnuts, finally, are lower in calories than other nuts, but offer far fewer nutritional benefits. Flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds may offer similar benefits and are also creative, healthy additions to salads, vegetables, and cereals.
Consequently, stock your pantry! Remember that 1.5 oz. of nuts is really only a small handful, or about 3-4 tablespoons. It is difficult to generalize on actual numbers because 1 oz. of peanuts, which are quite small, contains far more nuts than 1 oz. of walnuts, for example. So use good judgment, and measure your portion instead of just reaching into the container. They are hard to stop eating if you don’t pay attention to quantity! Finally, look for raw nuts as your primary source. Roasted, dry-roasted, candied, honey-roasted, BBQ, or any other types of processing and flavoring adds calories, loads of sodium, and sometimes even more fat, although not the healthy type. Usually the raw nuts are found in clear plastic containers that the stores package themselves and sell by weight. Also, all of these benefits apply to nut butters, too, so try them! Just make sure the ingredients list only nuts and maybe salt, with no added sugar, and again, measure your portions.
Now go nuts!