Tuesday, January 13, 2009


A nutty addition to a healthy diet

Eating a handful of nuts is an enjoyment for most people. But the thought of fat in nuts keep some from savoring that pleasure.

Nuts, known as tree nuts, include almonds, brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. They are an easy way to add flavor and nutrition to any meal or snack.

While nuts are relatively high in fat, most of that fat is unsaturated. Saturated fats, found in mainly animal products, raise blood cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. But unsaturated fats, mono and polyunsaturated found in plants foods, have been shown to decrease low density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad cholesterol”) levels.

Research studies have shown that many different kinds of nuts are helpful in reducing the risk of cancer and elevated blood pressure as well as reducing the risk of heart disease. What’s more, new research shows that eating plans that include nuts are satisfying, leading people to eat less and control their weight.

Though the unsaturated fats in nuts play a role in the prevention of heart disease, other nutrients may also be important. Nuts provide a power house line up of nutrients: protein, carbohydrate, fiber and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid, niacin, vitamin E, selenium, potassium and zinc.

Another less known essential nutrient, choline, which is found in nuts, has gotten recent media attention in regards to inadequate intakes in pregnant and breast feeding women. Choline plays a role in unborn and infant brain development, therefore, breastfeeding and pregnant women are recommended to increase their consumption of foods practically rich in choline.

In addition, a handful of nuts provide a wide variety of phytochemicals, or plant compounds, that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Aim for unsalted or non sugar coated nuts when purchasing. When buying whole, unshelled nuts, be sure to look for clean shells without cracks -- the exception is pistachios. Whole, raw shelled nuts should appear fairly uniform in color and size.

To keep nuts as fresh as possible, store them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to six months or up to one year in the freezer.

Easy ways to incorporate nuts into your diet are:
• Sprinkle in hot or cold cereals
• Top yogurt with nuts and fruit
• Eat them as a snack mixed with dried fruit
• Try unshelled nuts to slow down eating time (can help with portion control)
• Instead of using meat, toss some nuts in your salad or pasta
• Experiment with different nuts in muffin or pancake recipes
• Add some ground nuts to bread crumb fish coating.

Nuts are delicious addition to just about any food. As tasty and versatile as they are, nuts can spruce up everyday recipes as well. Incorporating nuts into a healthy diet can have many health benefits although the total fat in nuts is high, so watch your portions… and go nuts!

Sarah Hospod is a registered dietitian in the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Hospod and all of the Healthy Living columnists at healthyliving@wwbh.org or comment on their blog at healthydocs.blogspot.com.

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