It's OK to go nuts for nuts. Just not too nutty.
Medical research suggests that nuts contribute nutrients to our diets in ways that benefit our health. Whole, unsalted nuts are packed with good stuff that can impact cardiovascular and metabolic health, including folate, amino acids, antioxidant vitamins and fiber. While they're relatively high in fat, it's generally of the healthier, unsaturated and monounsaturated kinds.
According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, nuts are important components of diets we know to be healthy, such as Mediterranean, Asian and vegetarian. In a primarily plant-based diet, nuts are an important source of unsaturated fat and high-quality protein. Several large studies have connected nut consumption with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Plus, they have a rich flavor and crunchy texture that's very satisfying. A serving of whole, unsalted almonds (1 ounce, or 23 almonds) makes a good snack, with 14 grams of unsaturated fat, 6 grams of protein and about 160 calories. Of course, you should steer clear of tree nuts like walnuts and pecans and legumes like peanuts if you have nut allergies.
And then there are seeds: Flax and chia especially have been getting a lot of buzz lately. You may have heard about these "superfoods," which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds may prevent heart disease, stroke, and autoimmune diseases.
Let's take a quick look at some good-for-you nuts and seeds:
- Almonds: high in Vitamin E, biotin and, importantly, healthy monounsaturated fat (the kind found in olive oil); low glycemic index means almonds can help moderate blood sugar
- Walnuts: high in phytonutrients and super high in Omega-3s
- Cashews: higher in calories (about 220 per 1/4 cup) than other nuts, while at the same time lower in fat; most of the fat is the healthy monounsaturated kind
- Peanuts: rich in monounsaturated fat, protein and antioxidants
- Pecans: high in monounsaturated fat and phytonutrients
- Chia seeds: highest levels of Omega-3s of all plants; a complete protein
- Flax seeds: antioxidant-rich, full of Omega-3s and phytonutrients; ground flax seed is easier to digest than whole seeds, and you'll get more nutritional value
- Sunflower seeds/Sesame seeds: rich in nutrients like copper and zinc, and in plant sterols that can boost the immune system and reduce cholesterol.
How to enjoy nuts and seeds
Because they're high in fat, nuts and seeds are also high in calories. So watch your serving size: no more than 1/4 cup of whole nuts, 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed or 2 tablespoons whole chia seeds.
Opt for whole raw, unpeeled, unsalted and unflavored nuts, as many nutrients are found in the skins. Some, like pecans and walnuts, can be a little bitter when they're raw, so it's easy to toast them in the oven to make them taste sweeter — just scatter the nuts on a baking sheet and toast until lightly browned, about 5–8 minutes at 350°.
Flavorful nut oils, with their monounsaturated fat content, are be healthy additions to homemade salad dressings. Nut and sunflower seed butters are good alternatives to peanut butter; choose natural butters that don't contain salt or added sugar.
Store nuts and seeds in the freezer, as they can become rancid.
- Add chopped toasted unsalted nuts to homemade granola or your favorite cereal.
- Toss on chopped nuts or toasted sunflower seeds a salad loaded with veggies.
- Spread nut butters like almond or cashew on whole-grain toast for a quick breakfast, or on sliced apple for an afternoon snack.
- Stir ground flax or chia seeds into your favorite smoothie or low-fat yogurt.
- Add chia seeds to oatmeal.
- Make Chocolate Chia Pudding — chia seeds turn thick and gelatinous when they're mixed with liquid like almond milk, creating a dairy-free pudding.
- Use tahini (sesame butter) in homemade Low-Fat Roasted Carrot Hummus.
- Combine toasted sesame seeds with sea salt to make the seasoning called gomasio; its delicious, nutty flavor is great on roasted vegetables.
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