We all remember the low-fat diet craze of the 1980’s, right?
Back then we were afraid to eat too much fat out of fear of gaining weight and having a heart attack. However, over these past 30 years, while our percentage of calories from fat has decreased, our waistlines have continued to increase worldwide. What happened was that most people replaced the fat in their diet with refined carbohydrates like muffins, crackers and processed snack foods. Additionally, low-fat diets were difficult to follow long-term since fat, the pleasurable and satisfying part of the meal, was missing. As a result, the low-fat diet offered little benefit for either weight loss or disease prevention.
During that time period, health professionals labeled nuts, along with potato chips and crackers, guilty-by-association for also being high in fat and calories. However, researchers, physicians and dietitians now agree that all fats are not created equal. Healthy fats like mono- and poly-unsaturated fats found in avocados, olive oil, fish and nuts are actually beneficial to the heart, while saturated and trans fats found in potato chips, crackers and processed foods are unhealthy.
Are you still holding a grudge against all fats, long after you got rid of the shoulder pads and stirrup pants of the 80’s? If so, consider adding nuts back into your diet for a number of reasons.
Health Benefits of Nuts
The large PREDIMED study (right here out of Spain) examined the health outcomes of eating a Mediterranean diet among men and women with high risk of heart disease. The researchers reported that individuals following the Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts (verses those following a low fat diet) for one year showed lower LDL cholesterol (which is a good thing), higher HDL (good thing again) and reduced abdominal fat (pretty awesome thing).
Several large studies, have shown lower risk of heart attack, sudden cardiac death or cardiovascular disease by eating nuts several times a week. In one Harvard study of 86,000 women tracked for 14 years, researchers found that women who ate at least 5 servings of nuts per week were 35% less likely to suffer heart attacks than women who ate less than 1 serving a month.
Other studies have shown that nuts helped control weight and left people feeling more full and less hungry. A study of 51,000 women found that an increased consumption of nuts was associated with decreased weight gain over an 8-year period as compared with women who consumed nuts less frequently. Therefore, despite their high calorie and fat contribution to the diet, nuts appear to be associated with better weight control over time.
In the Nurses Health Study of over 80,000 women followed for 16 years, researchers found that eating 1 serving of nuts more than 5 times per week was associated with a 16% reduced risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Researchers also found that eating peanut butter reduced one’s risk of developing the disease. Reasons for this may be due to the high content of polyunsaturated fat, fiber and magnesium found in nuts, which may benefit glucose metabolism and insulin control.
In a 2011 study, Canadian researchers found that consuming 75 grams of nuts daily as a replacement for carbohydrates improved blood sugar control and lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol among people with Type 2 diabetes. Authors also noted that subjects reduced their HbA1c (the long-term marker of blood sugar levels) by two-thirds. Even more encouraging was that the increased nut consumption was not associated with weight gain.
Nuts are high in the healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fat, which have been associated with lowering LDL cholesterol and regulating glucose and insulin levels. Nuts are also a rich source of vitamin E, selenium, potassium, B vitamins and antioxidants, which are all beneficial to health. Unlike animal products, nuts have no cholesterol and contain only tiny amounts of saturated fat. Nuts also provide protein and fiber, which suppress hunger and keep us feeling satisfied long after a meal.
Tips on Eating Nuts
In order to reap the benefits of nuts, you don’t want to overdo it. Nuts are high in calories (9 kcal/g) therefore large serving sizes can negate the overall benefits to health. Fortunately, you only need a small amount (such as 7 walnuts a day) to benefit your health.
One recommendation is to replace refined sugars and saturated fats with nuts. For example, substitute nuts for potato chips or processed meat, like salami or bacon – wait what?! Second, remember that many prepared nuts are roasted in oil and salted, detracting from the overall benefits of nuts. Here are some tips when adding nuts to your diet:
- Select dry-roasted, unsalted nuts.
- Try walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, pine nuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, and pecans.
- Aim to eat up to a palm sized portion per day or 2 Tbsp of nut butters.
- Store nuts in the refrigerator to prevent the oils from turning rancid.
- Snack on dry, unsalted nuts instead of processed meats, cheeses, chips or crackers.
- Add sliced almonds, pine nuts or chopped walnuts to salad, pasta and grain dishes.
- Pre-portion nuts into small snack bags for work or school to avoid overeating directly from the container.
- Grind the nuts into a powder using a coffee grinder and store in the fridge to be added to smoothies, yogurt, salads or homemade baked goods.
- Instead of using deli meats on sandwiches try almond, peanut or sesame butter on toast. (Make sure these butters have no added sugar, salt or hydrogenated oil)
- Add nuts to homemade breads and cakes like banana, carrot and zucchini breads.
- Top you morning bowl of oatmeal with omega-3-rich walnuts.