You don't have to feel guilty about digging into that bowl of mixed nuts you keep around for the holidays -- as long as you follow that healthful mantra: Moderation.
Even though nuts are a higher-fat food, the fat profile is part of what makes them so healthful.
"Nuts are cholesterol-free and contain mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fats," said Maureen Ternus, a dietitian and nutrition coordinator for the International Tree Nut Council's Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. (The council is a nonprofit industry organization with member associations that represent the nine tree nuts.) These are the same good fats also found in olive oil that don't raise blood cholesterol levels.
Study after study with various types of nuts, including almonds, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios, has shown that people who regularly eat nuts have lower cholesterol levels and may be reducing their risk of heart disease.
An emerging and promising benefit being studied more closely: Nuts seem to satisfy the appetite without causing weight gain.
"Pretzels just don't keep you feeling full," Ternus said. Nuts produce more eating satisfaction and feelings of fullness than other carbohydrate-rich snacks, she added. "It's the crunchy texture, along with the protein, fiber and fat that help make nuts so satisfying."
Nuts are part of the meat group in the USDA food pyramid because they are a good source of protein. They also are powerhouses of vitamin E, selenium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, potassium and fiber.
Just a decade ago, nuts were forbidden on heart-healthy diets. But earlier this year, nuts became the first food allowed to carry a "qualified" health claim on their labels. In a July 2003 ruling, the Food and Drug Administration granted processors of certain nuts the right to print this statement on their labels:
"Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."
One and one-half ounces of nuts is about a handful, or 1/3 cup.
Existing health claims -- 13 so far -- have strong and conclusive evidence to support the health statements. A "qualified" health claim has scientific evidence to support the claim, but the evidence is not considered conclusive.
Nuts allowed to tout this health claim include almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts (pignolia variety) and walnuts. Some nuts, such as macadamias and cashews, just missed the cut because they are slightly higher in saturated fat.
The effects of specific nuts on heart health have been studied over the past decade. In one study conducted at the University of Toronto, researchers found that including almonds along with other cholesterol-lowering foods such as soy oats and olive oil, was as effective as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, but without the side effects. In four weeks, study participants' LDL "bad" cholesterol levels decreased by up to 35 percent. (The study was funded in part by the Almond Board of California.)
Walnuts are particularly high in omega-3 fats, a type of fat that shows promise in fighting heart disease, arthritis and other inflammatory disease. A 1 1/2-ounce serving of walnuts fulfills the daily requirement of essential omega-3 fats.
The newest finding: Nuts may help with weight control. People who add nuts to their diets typically do not gain weight -- and may even lose weight -- because they tend to self-adjust their calorie intake. In other words, you may tend to feel fuller for a longer period of time after eating nuts and naturally decrease what you eat at other times of the day.
This means that adding a controlled portion of nuts to your daily diet doesn't necessarily equate with adding extra calories. And you may even eat fewer calories overall. This is good news for dieters looking for a satisfying snack.
There may also be another reason that nuts help shed unwanted pounds. In a recently reported study in the International Journal of Obesity, including almonds in a weight-reduction diet for obese patients led to greater weight loss compared to obese patients who consumed the same amount of calories from a diet high in complex carbohydrates.
Lead researcher Michelle Wien, a clinical dietitian and research fellow at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., offers an explanation for this finding.
"Earlier research found that about 10 to 20 percent of the fat in almonds is not fully absorbed in the intestines," Wein said. "This means that almonds may not contribute as many calories as we expect."
Participants in her study ate 3 ounces of almonds per day (about 60 to 70 almonds). Many of the study participants have continued to include almonds and other nuts even after the study ended.
"Nuts are easy to portion out," Wien said. "Some of my patients carry their almonds in a breath mint tin and eat a few when they feel hungry between meals."
She doesn't recommend the larger amount used in the study as a daily portion for her weight-loss clients. Wien suggests that about 1 to 1 1/2 ounces of nuts is an appropriate daily amount for most people to get positive results.
A Handful a Day
If you eat nuts as a snack, remember to stop at a handful or so. It's easy to lose restraint when you're seated next to a bowl of salted nuts. One ounce is about the size of a small handful.
There is no difference between the nutrition profile of natural or raw nuts compared to dry roasted nuts. However, oil-roasted nuts have slightly more fat and calories.
If you don't want to snack on nuts, try adding them to soups, salads, pasta, vegetable and side dishes, breads and desserts. The International Tree Nut Council offers these suggestions: