Calling all nuts

Life can certainly be pretty nutty; but when it comes to our nutritional health, the nuttier the better! That’s because eating nuts as part of a healthy diet can be good for our heart. Nuts, which contain unsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients, are a great snack food, simple to store, and easy to pack when we’re on the go. They’re also high in protein and fiber which delays absorption and decreases hunger, so frequent nut eaters are less likely to gain weight.

Nuts are energy-dense foods rich in bioactive macronutrients, micronutrients and phytochemicals. The unique composition of nuts is critical for their health effects. Patients who eat a “Mediterranean-style” diet rich in nuts or extra virgin olive oil — as well as vegetables and wine — have fewer heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from cardiovascular disease than those who eat a diet that simply lowers their intake of dietary fat.

Nuts, seeds, and pulses have been a regular part of mankind’s diet since pre-agricultural times. In Western countries nuts are consumed as snacks, desserts or part of a meal, and are eaten whole (fresh or roasted), in spreads (peanut butter, almond paste), as oils or hidden in commercial products, mixed dishes, sauces, pastries, ice creams and baked goods.

The type of nut we eat isn’t that important, although some nuts have more heart-healthy nutrients and fats than do others. Almost every type of nut has a lot of nutrition packed into a tiny package. People who eat nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet can lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol level in their blood. High LDL is one of the primary causes of heart disease. Eating nuts may reduce our risk of developing blood clots that can cause a fatal heart attack. Nuts also appear to improve the health of the lining of our arteries.

As much as 80 percent of a nut is fat. Even though most of this fat is healthy fat, it’s still a lot of calories. That’s why we should eat nuts in moderation and use nuts as a substitute for saturated fats, such as those found in meats, eggs and dairy products. The American Heart Association recommends eating four servings of unsalted nuts a week.

Select raw or dry-roasted nuts rather than those cooked in oil. A serving is a small handful (1.5 ounces) of whole nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter. But again, do this as part of a heart-healthy diet. Just eating nuts and not cutting back on saturated fats found in many dairy and meat products won’t do our hearts any good.

Walnuts are one of the best-studied nuts, and it’s been shown they contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and pecans are other nuts that appear to be quite heart healthy. And peanuts — which are technically not a nut, but a legume, like beans — seem to be relatively healthy. Keep in mind, though, we cancel out the heart-healthy benefits of nuts if they’re covered with chocolate, sugar, or salt.

Besides being packed with protein, most nuts contain at least some of these heart-healthy substances:

  • Unsaturated fats. It’s not entirely clear why, but it’s thought that the “good” fats in nuts — both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — lower bad cholesterol levels.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Many nuts are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are a healthy form of fatty acids that seem to help our heart by, among other things, preventing dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in many kinds of fish, but nuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • All nuts contain fiber, which helps lower our cholesterol. Fiber makes us feel full, so we eat less. Fiber is also thought to play a role in preventing diabetes.
  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E may help stop the development of plaques in our arteries, which can narrow them. Plaque development in our arteries can lead to chest pain, coronary artery disease or a heart attack.
  • Plant sterols. Some nuts contain plant sterols, a substance that can help lower our cholesterol. Plant sterols are often added to products like margarine and orange juice for additional health benefits, but sterols occur naturally in nuts.
  • L-arginine. Nuts are also a source of l-arginine, which is a substance that may help improve the health of our artery walls by making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots that can block blood flow.

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