Improve Your Health by Going Nuts!
Many people have heard that nuts can be a powerhouse of nutrition providing protein, healthy fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Nuts are a smart choice to incorporate into our daily meals and snacks, not to mention nuts are easy to take with us for the busy “on-the-run” type of days. Different types of nuts provide different nutritional benefits, eating a wide variety is the best option. Many healthy eating plans recommend incorporating nuts, including the Mediterranean diet.
Several studies have linked eating nuts to a lower risk of developing chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. According to a recently published research study funded by the National Institutes of Health, you can improve your heart health by snacking on nuts of almost any variety, including peanuts, walnuts, cashews, macadamias and almonds. This particular study tracked more than 210,000 adult health professionals in the U.S. over a 32-year period and found that people who regularly included nuts in their diets had a lower risk of heart disease.
Some of the specific numbers were eye-opening. For example, people who ate walnuts at least once a week had about a 20% lower risk of heart disease than people who did not consume nuts on a weekly basis. Those who ate peanuts at least twice a week lowered their risk of heart disease by roughly 14%, while those who ate almonds, pistachios, cashews or macadamias reduced the risk by up to 23%. In particular, eating walnuts and peanuts lowered the risk of stroke. This study provided important data, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every four deaths in the U.S. is linked to heart disease.
The nutritional value of nuts has been well documented in that they contain healthy unsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients. For example, they can reduce the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol that is instrumental in the development of plaque buildup in our blood vessels. Cholesterol in itself is a fascinating topic that is not as black and white as it may seem, we can discuss this in a future article post. Nuts have also been shown to reduce inflammation, a condition that contributes to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Inflammation can reduce blood flow to the heart and brain, potentially causing a myocardial infarction or stroke.
Nuts are rich in arginine, an amino acid that is required by the body to make nitric oxide, which eases blood flow by relaxing constricted blood vessels, improving circulation. Also, nuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and are important for both optimal heart and brain health. Other healthy nutrients found in nuts include vitamin E, selenium, magnesium, folic acid, potassium and fiber, as well as plant sterols, which can help to lower cholesterol.
A word of caution, too much of anything is not ideal.
While the results of the study are promising, it’s important to note that it didn’t provide concrete evidence that eating nuts actually improves the health of your heart, only that there is a correlation between the two. In other words, it’s possible that people who regularly eat nuts are more likely to make other healthier life choices as well, such as eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise. Also, all of the participants tracked in the study were health professionals, a group that, in general, may be likely to live overall healthy lifestyle. The data was also self-reported by study participants, and therefore not 100% reliable. The study, while encouraging, is not conclusive.
On a side note, it is important to mention that some people can have severe allergic reactions simply by touching tree nuts or peanuts. People with nut allergies are able to still receive all the nutrients that are provided from nuts in a variety of other foods that do not contain nuts.
It is also important to keep in mind that many nuts on the market can be loaded with added salt, which can be a contributing factor to high blood pressure. Make sure to look for “raw” nuts with no added salt, sugar, or oils. From a nutrition standpoint, choosing nuts as a snack is a great choice but be aware of the amount and recommended serving size. On average, nuts contain about 160-180 calories per ounce, which can add up quickly. Instead of adding nuts on top of your current meal plan you should try to replace a less healthy option with nuts. For example, instead of adding flavor to a salad with bacon bits you can try walnuts or almonds, or replace snacks such as chips, ice cream, or candy with a heart-healthy trail mix (quick and delicious instructions below!). Long-term over-consumption of calories may lead to weight gain. Along with caloric intake, it is also necessary to keep in mind the importance of physical activity to maintain a healthy body weight.
You can create your own simple heart-healthy trail mix by making a small batch in a sandwich bag, or making enough to store in a larger container to enjoy throughout the week or share with family and friends! Tip: Explore the bulk food section of your local grocery stores for a great variety of healthy options when making your own heart-healthy trail mix. To make this snack, start by picking out the nuts of your choice, example almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and/or cashews (raw, no added sugar, salt, or oils). Next put in granola, seeds (sunflower, flax, chia, etc.), and dark chocolate pieces, for optimal health benefits buy >70% cocoa. Mix all ingredients in a bag or bowl, shake/stir up ingredients and enjoy!
Finally, some people might be tempted to count all types of nut butters or a chocolate hazelnut spread as their weekly nut consumption. When buying any type of nut butter, such as peanut or almond butter, it is important to view the list of ingredients on the nutrition facts label to make sure there is no added sugar, oils, or salt.
In a nutshell (pun intended), nuts are a smart choice to incorporate into your meals and snacks, however keep in mind variety and sticking to the recommended serving size are key. Have fun with it!
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