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Sunday
Apr112010

Needing a healthy snack? Go nuts!

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Snacking is a normal part of people's days. Walk through a grocery store and you'll see hundreds of foods calling out to you to be your snack of choice for the upcoming week. Most of the foods are high-carb, highly processed foods and do little to satisfy cravings and support a healthy metabolism. One option for a healthy snack, though, has been around since long before the creation of packaged foods. Nuts and seeds could be one of the best options for a portable, nutritious, satisfying snack.

"But nuts and seeds have a lot of fat," you might say. Even though saturated fat has never been shown to negatively impact our health, or cause the heart disease it has been associated with, people are conditioned to see fat as a dietary evil.(1) Unfortunately, those who steer clear of dietary fat may be missing out on many important nutrients. Fat is important for normal cell functioning, nervous system function, it supports satiety, is necessary for normal hormone production and is a great, long-lasting source of energy. It also provides additional calories for active individuals without affecting insulin levels. Avoiding unnecessary rises in insulin helps the body stay in more of a state of “fat burning” rather than “fat storage.” Aside from some of the naturally occurring fats in meats and vegetables, nuts, seeds and oils provide additional, healthy sources of dietary fat.

Of course, when we talk about the health benefits of nuts and seeds, we’re talking about them in their natural state. Chocolate covered nuts, seeds mixed with sugar, or nuts and seeds in granola, mixed with syrups, sugars and sweetened dried fruit are not healthy options. One misconception about nuts and seeds is that they are seen as a good source of protein. While they do provide some protein, it is not the same quality of protein as those from an animal source. Besides the difference in protein quality, there are also far more fat calories than protein calories in a serving of nuts and seeds. If an individual is striving to consume 20-30 grams of protein, it would require three to five servings, which would be a significant excess of calories because of their fat content. Again, that's not saying the fat is bad, but you can have too much of a good thing.

The FDA even allows the following health claim to accompany the packaging of most nuts:

“Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.“

 The second part of the health claim above assumes that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease, which according to the most recent reviews of research shows is not the case.  Nonetheless, the fact that the FDA has approved the claim that nuts can positively affect heart disease risk is a powerful statement.

Health Benefits of Nuts & Seeds

Three major epidemiological studies, the Nurses’ Health Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, and the Adventist Study show that consumption of nuts several times per week results in a 30-50% lower risk in heart attacks or heart disease.(2) Dr. Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, explains in his book that one of the reasons nuts may provide such significant health benefits is because of their arginine content. Arginine is an amino acid that has been shown to provide protection of the arterial walls, reducing the likelihood of atherosclerosis. As a side note, arginine was shown in a recent study to increase anaerobic threshold in elderly cyclists, providing additional evidence of cardiovascular benefits of nutrients found in nuts.(3) Nuts and seeds provide a variety of healthy fats. Most of the fat is monounsaturated fat, some is polyunsaturated fat and some is saturated. They also contain fiber and some are high in omega-3s like walnuts. From Dr. Bowden’s book, the following is a brief summary of some of the most common nuts and seeds:

Almonds: Almost 70% of the fat in almonds is monounsaturated fat which is thought to be the key to health in the Mediterranean diet. Another benefit of almonds is that they contain only 6 grams of carbohydrate and half of those carbohydrates come from fiber.

Brazil Nuts: Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, which helps to combat the effects of heavy metals. It is also important in the formation of thyroid hormone.

Cashews: A little lower in calories (by weight) than other nuts, cashews provide magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and selenium.

Hazelnuts: Hazelnuts contain beta-sitosterol which has been shown to help lower cholesterol and reduce symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Macadamia Nuts: Calcium, phosphorus and magnesium can be found in these nuts, along with beta-sitosterol.

Peanuts: Peanuts are actually a legume, not a nut. They are high in antioxidants. When shopping for peanut butter, look for organic peanut butter. Beware that peanuts are the most allergenic nut, though.

Pecans: Besides their monounsaturated fat content, they also potassium, vitamin E, phytosterols and beta-sitosterol.

Pistachios: Many studies have been done on nut consumption in general, but two have been done specifically on pistachios. One showed that when pistachios were used in place of other fat sources, they improved lipid profiles and decreased the risk of coronary heart disease. The other showed that pistachio consumption decreased oxidative stress and improved total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.

Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are also high in beta-sitosterol and therefore have benefits for prostate health as well as the ability to lower cholesterol levels.

Sesame Seeds: The lignans of sesame seeds enhance vitamin E absorption, improve lipid profiles and support healthy blood pressure levels. Animal studies have shown that sesame seeds have the potential to increase fat utilization.

Sunflower Seeds: Sesame seeds have been shown to provide antioxidant and anticarcinogenic benefits. They also provide more protein and fiber than most nuts.

Walnuts: Walnuts contain more omega-3 than any other nut, and although it’s not the same as the DHA and EPA that comes from fish oil, it is still seen as a very healthy nut.

Summary

That’s quite a list of health benefits from nuts and seeds! Of course, like many other things, there is a point of diminishing returns. According to research discussed in the best-selling book on longevity, The Blue Zones, most of the health benefits of nut and seed consumption seem to be from 1-1 ½ ounces per day(4). It seems to be human nature to think that when something is healthy for us, we can eat as much as we want. That’s not the case with nuts and seeds, where total calorie consumption can quickly get out of hand. If you're going to make nuts and seeds a more regular part of your nutrition habits, here are a six things to keep in mind:

Weigh out an ounce before you eat it so you know what it looks like. It's easy to end up eating three to four ounces without being aware of it at first.

  1. If you're attempting to lose or manage your weight, eating nuts and seeds shold be in place of, not in addition to other foods in your diet. Skip the candy, brownies, or other processed snacks and replace them with an ounce to an ounce and a half of nuts.
  2. Don't be sold by packaging. Just because a bag of trail mix containssome nuts and seeds doesn't make it healthy. The milk chocolate, sweetened fruit and sugar added in most of them will negate the benefits of nuts. Better yet, make your own trail mix with mostly nuts, a small amount of dark chocolate and some unsweetened coconut.
  3. Mix it up. Try new ones each week wnhen you do your shopping.
  4. Try a new nut butter like almond butter in your protein shake for some healthy fat and new taste in your shake
  5. Take a serving to work, don't take the container. If you bring a limited amount, you won't find yourself going through a full jar on a stressful work day.

Nuts and seeds are a great, nature-made snack food. Enjoy!

References:

  1. Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu F, Krauss R. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020;91:525-546
  2. Jonny Bowden. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. 2007. Fair Winds Press. Beverly, MA
  3. Chen S, Kim W, Henning S, Carpenter C, Li Z. Arginine and antioxidant supplement on performance in elderly cyclists: a randomized controlled trial. JISSN. 2010;7:13
  4. Dan Buettner. The Blue Zones. 2008. The National Geographic Society. Washington, D.C.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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