But if nuts aren't on your eating plan, they should be. A nut holds an abundance of healthy, energizing goodness all squeezed into a small package.
Nuts contain healthy monounsaturated fats, which protect the heart by lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol and raising "good" HDL levels. Researchers also believe these monounsaturated fats help prevent diabetes by building healthier membranes around cells, creating more efficient doorways for blood sugar to enter.
They also contain essential omega-3 fatty acids, which provide anti-inflammatory protection against heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases (disorders in which the immune system attacks the body, like rheumatoid arthritis.)
Nuts are full of vitamin E, selenium and magnesium, which provide additional protection against heart disease and diabetes. In addition to their great taste, all nuts are cholesterol-free and full of important nutrients, including protein and fiber. The protein content of nuts is around 10 to 25 percent, making them a great alternative to meat. In fact, in 2003 the FDA allowed food companies to put the following qualified claim on nut packaging: "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."
Nuts also are recommended as part of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,) a dietary plan clinically proven to significantly reduce blood pressure. The DASH diet is supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and recommends four to five servings (1.5 ounces per serving) per week of nuts, seeds and legumes.
If you're looking for energy to burn, a few nuts go a long way. Calorie-dense and low-glycemic (slow-burning,) nuts are a great source of long-lasting fuel. Eighteen cashews, for instance, deliver about 160 calories, and just two tablespoons of peanut butter yield 190 calories. A single serving of mixed nuts as a late-afternoon snack can help you power through that evening workout.
A high-caloric content, of course, can be a double-edged sword. If you're not burning off what you're taking in, that palm-full of nuts could turn into a pound of flesh. However, a number of studies have shown that substituting "good" fats (about 80 percent of a nut's calories come from healthy monounsaturated fats) for "bad" fats (saturated) may help you maintain a healthy body weight. In fact, some research suggests that consuming nuts actually may assist in weight loss.
In a study at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, researcher Kathy McManus found that people who included monounsaturated fats in their diets lost an average of 11 pounds in six weeks and kept it off for a year and a half. The fat, protein and fiber in nuts help you feel full longer, so you may eat less during the day.
As with any food, avoid packing on the pounds by controlling your portions. Include only about an ounce (one-quarter cup) to 1.5 ounces (one-third cup) of nuts in your daily diet. To keep from eating too many nuts at one time, measure out this amount in your hand, and stop there (keep the jar in the cabinet). Or you could place 1.5-ounce allotments in plastic sandwich bags for a perfectly proportioned grab-and-go snack.
An ounce of prevention
All varieties of nuts are filled with nutrients that help prevent disease. Here are some of the standouts:
An excellent source of vitamin E and an antioxidant superhero, defending cells against damage. Vitamin E also prevents blood cells from sticking to each other, helping to create clear and flexible blood vessels. And almonds contain about 80 milligrams of calcium in one ounce.
Contain the highest amount of omega-3-fatty acids of all the nuts (2.5 grams per ounce versus less than 0.5 grams in other nuts). Numerous studies have shown that omega-3s help reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and clinical depression.
Because they're technically legumes (like beans and peas, they grow underground instead of on a tree,) peanuts have the most protein of any "nut." They also are highest in the amino acid arginine, a precursor to nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow.
An excellent, though lesser-known source of antioxidants, which may fight cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
Have more antioxidants than any other nut and rank 13th among all high-antioxidant foods, according to a report in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Eating foods rich in antioxidants is one of the best ways to ward off chronic diseases and sickness.
Can be ground and used in baked goods to lower carbohydrates. Hazelnuts are low in saturated fat, rich in vitamin E, magnesium, selenium and heart-healthy B vitamins. They contain the blood pressure-lowering minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium. They're also an excellent source of plant sterols, believed to help prevent disorders like colon cancer and heart disease.
Annette Colby, Ph.D., R.D., is a nutrition therapist specializing in weight loss, disordered eating, fitness and women's health. For information and a weekly "Eating Peacefully" newsletter, visit LovingMiracles.com.