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Cracking the Health Benefits of Nuts


by Christina Fitzgerald, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. -

Is there nuttin’ new about nuts? Many recent strides have been made in the research on the health benefits of nuts, but nuts have been a staple in peoples’ diets throughout history. The oldest walnut remains were discovered in Iraq and believed to be from 50,000 B.C. And, the crusaders definitely knew what they were doing when they returned to the Holy Land during the 11th and 13th centuries with Arabian marzipan.

 Healthy discoveries

Despite their status as a longstanding staple, many still hesitate before munching on nuts, due to their high calorie and fat content. Although nuts do pack in the fat and calories, ranging from 10 to 22 grams of fat and 150 to 180 calories per ounce, a little goes a very long way. Fortunately, the fats found in nuts are primarily unsaturated fatty acids (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), which have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and reduce low-density lipoproteins. The benefit of these fats led to an 2003 FDA-approved health claim for seven different nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and some pine nuts): “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.”

In addition to their heart-healthy fat content, nuts are great sources of several vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Epidemiological studies are uncovering the levels of dietary antioxidants in nuts may decrease the risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Almonds and peanuts are considered excellent sources of vitamin E, the most-important lipid-soluble antioxidant found in our cells. The antioxidant function of vitamin E suggests that it protects against, and possibly treats, conditions related to oxidative stress such as aging, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes and infections.

Nuts in the diet may also help lower body weight. Experts believe the higher fiber and protein content of nuts, as well as their satisfying crunch, act as a natural appetite suppressant by making a person feel fuller for longer. In addition, increased nut consumption has been linked to better-managed blood sugar and insulin levels, which are often connected to feelings of hunger.

 Nutrition by the nutshell

Peanuts. Technically legumes, peanuts are a concentrated source of monounsaturated fats. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (22(2):133–141) showed regular consumption of peanuts lowers triglycerides and improves diet quality by increasing nutrients known to be protective against cardiovascular disease. Peanuts contain all nine essential amino acids but, per 100 mg, they are especially rich in leucine (1,800 mg), phenylalanine (1,400 mg) and valine (1,170 mg). In addition, peanuts contain the antioxidant resveratrol.

Almonds. The almond nut is actually the seed of the fruit of the almond tree. Nut or seed, ounce for ounce, almonds are one of the most nutrient-dense nuts. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E (7.43 mg per oz., 35% DV) and magnesium (76 mg per oz., 20% DV), a good source of protein and fiber, and a source of potassium, calcium (8% DV), phosphorus, and iron. As a protein source, almonds are rich in arginine, but limited in lysine; therefore, they need to be paired with a complementary protein. A 2005 research study published in the Journal of Nutrition (135(6):1,366-1,373) showed that, in addition to the previously mentioned nutrients, almond skins contain over 20 flavonoids that enhance the mechanism of vitamin E in the body.

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