The Benefits of Nuts

© 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Note: This article was originally published in the June 2007 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

picture of nuts
Photograph © 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

About 1% of the American population is allergic to tree nuts and/or peanuts, but those who do not suffer from that misfortune can benefit in numerous ways from the regular consumption of a variety of nuts.

Nuts are very high in several important nutrients. They are so high in protein that the USDA Food Guide Pyramid puts them in the meat category! Nuts are good sources of several minerals. Delicious cashews, my own favorite, are rich in copper, magnesium, and calcium. Nuts are also high in Vitamin E, fiber, and selenium.

Even though nuts are relatively high in fat calories, those fats are primarily the "good" polyunsaturated and monounsaturated kinds, which can help lower cholesterol. Nuts contain oleic acid, the same heart-healthy fat that is found in olive oil. Walnuts in particular contain high levels of ALA, an omega-3 fat. Omega-3 fats may help the body reduce inflammation that can lead to heart disease and cancer. They can also lower LDL cholesterol, the dangerous kind; almonds seem to be particularly good at lowering cholesterol. The Harvard Nurses Study found that women who eat just five ounces of nuts per week (one ounce = about 18 almonds) had a 35% lower risk of heart disease than women who seldom or never ate nuts.

Men should note that the arginine in nuts can help overcome erectile dysfuntion, lower elevated blood pressure, and boost immunity. Women should note that Brazil nuts are very high in selenium, which University of Illinois researchers determined can help prevent breast cancer. It may also help protect against lung, bowel, and prostate cancer. Nuts and other foods rich in magnesium (such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, blackstrap molasses, green leafy vegetables, and potatoes in their skins) may significantly reduce the risk of diabetes.

Many people are interested in any food that can help them with weight control. In this role, nuts are surprising stars. The "good" fats in nuts satisfy appetites, with the result that most people can snack on a handful of nuts a couple of times a day and then manage to cut their intake of low-nutrient snack foods. The fiber and pectin in apples has much the same effect, so a morning snack of nuts and an afternoon snack of an apple can go a long way toward satisfying "the munchies" that most of us get between meals. I also like a handful of mixed nuts on my morning cereal. The nuts increase both the density and the protein content of any cereal, making the satisfying feeling of fullness last a lot longer.

Taped to the inside of one of our kitchen cabinets is a chart comparing the nutrients and calories in nine different kinds of nuts, from almonds and brazil nuts to pistachios and walnuts. Here are some facts from that chart. Almonds and peanuts contain the most protein. Macadamia nuts and pecans are the highest in calories. Hazelnuts (filberts) and macadamia nuts are very high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Walnuts and Brazil nuts are the highest in polyunsaturated fat. Almonds and hazelnuts are the standouts when it comes to Vitamin E content, and cashews and pistachios have the most iron. Macadamia nuts and peanuts have the most fiber, and almonds contain the most calcium.

Hmm. It looks as though almonds and almond butter deserve their good reputation and popularity! But it's also clear that peanuts (actually legumes) and pure, natural peanut butter are not only cheap and tasty, but very good for you, as well as lower in calories than many true nuts. An African recipe I like calls for the addition of a tablespoon of peanut butter and a pinch of cumin to a pot of hot tomato soup. The result is different and delicious.

When you buy pure peanut butter and nut butters, you will notice that oil separation has occurred in the jar. No problem. Just remove the cap of the jar and heat the jar in the microwave oven for about one minute. Put the jar on couple of paper towels in case a little oil should spill out, then stir the contents with a table knife until all the oil is blended into the nut butter. Replace the cap and refrigerate the jar. The oil will not separate out again.

Where to buy nuts? Buying them at a health food store may assure you of greater freshness and purity. Refrigerate or freeze any nuts that you don't plan to eat up pretty quickly. Given that different nuts offer somewhat different health benefits, you may choose to buy containers of mixed nuts. The nuts at Costco are both low-priced and high in quality and taste. Their Kirkland Mixed Nuts are the best I have ever tasted. That's a pleasing mix of cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, peanut oil, and salt. Costco also sells bags of individual nuts, such as almonds and pecans. We keep nuts around all the time, and enjoy some every day, confident that we're getting lots of health benefits along with all that good flavor.