We’re all guilty of snacking. We grab a piece of candy. We pick up a handful of chips. We snack on “junk food” for connivence and it never leaves us satisfied in the longterm. As the New Year approaches, let’s keep a small container of nuts in our desk or bags. Walter Willett, author of EAT, DRINK AND BE HEALTHY, tells us why nuts are the perfect snack.
The next time you’re racking your brain over what to have for a snack or to make for dinner, think about using nuts as part of the main dish or as a garnish. Your taste buds and your heart will thank you.
Some people think that nuts are “junk food.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They’re a great source of protein and other beneficial nutrients. An ounce of almonds, walnuts, peanuts, or pistachios gives you about 8 grams of protein, the same as a glass of milk. It’s true that nuts contain quite a bit of fat, but this is mostly healthy unsaturated fat that reduces harmful LDL cholesterol and keeps protective HDL cholesterol high.
People who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them. Several large cohort studies, including the Adventist Health Studies, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, and the Nurses’ Health Study, have shown a consistent 30 to 50 percent lower risk of heart attack or heart disease associated with eating nuts several times a week. Regularly including nuts in the diet also seems to help prevent type 2 diabetes and gallstones.
The value of eating nuts was documented in the PREDIMED trial (see page 96). In this five-year trial, participants who were asked to eat an ounce of nuts each day in addition to a Mediterranean diet had lower risk of heart disease than those who followed a low-fat diet.10 Notably, the nut eaters did not gain more weight than those on the low-fat diet.
The evidence for the health benefits of nuts is strong enough that the FDA let food companies claim on nutrition labels that “eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
How do nuts benefit the heart? There are plenty of possibilities. Their unsaturated fats help lower harmful LDL cholesterol and boost protective HDL cholesterol. One type of unsaturated fat found in walnuts, the omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), seems to help prevent blood clots and potentially deadly erratic heartbeats (see “Omega-3 Fats: A Special Benefit” on pages 80–83). Nuts are also rich in arginine, an amino acid needed to make a tiny but important molecule called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps relax blood vessels and ease blood flow. It also makes blood platelets (tiny blood particles that are involved in clotting) less sticky and less likely to form clots in the bloodstream. Vitamin E, folic acid, potassium, fiber, and other phytonutrients found in nuts may also contribute to their heart-health benefits.
Whatever the mechanism, the message is the same: Nuts are good for your heart and the rest of you—if you eat them the right way.
Here’s the wrong way: eating nuts on top of your usual snacks and meals. At 160 calories an ounce, having a handful of almonds a day without cutting back on anything else could translate into adding 10 to 20 pounds over the course of a year. This extra weight would cancel out any benefit from nuts and tip the scales toward, not away from, heart disease.
Here’s the right way: eating nuts instead of chips or a candy bar as a snack. They’ll take the edge off hunger every bit as well as junk food, they taste as good as or better than junk food, and they give you healthy nutrients to boot.
Make sure you always grab a healthy snack. These are the “healthy” foods to avoid.