There is a compact food that can help lower cholesterol, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, contains valuable Vitamin E and makes you feel full so that sugary snacks aren't as attractive - all in a nutshell - literally. While most nuts have all of these traits, some have even more benefits, and they are versatile and readily available for the picking.
As with berries, not all nuts are botanically real "nuts" even though they are called nuts. Botanical nuts include pecans, acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, sweet chestnuts and alder nuts because they are simple dried fruits with one - sometimes two - seeds, and the seed case hardens at maturity.
Some of the most popular nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, coconuts, Brazil nuts and cashews are technically seeds. Peanuts are legumes, like peas or beans.
Nearly all nuts have similar benefits, but some have more of various minerals and vitamins. Health experts say eating a serving or two of mixed nuts every day for a snack will give the body an overall health boost.
Family trees aside, nuts add flavor and nutrition to balanced diets. As mentioned, some nuts have plant sterols, which are added to some foods, but are found naturally in nuts and help lower cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats ("good" fats) in nuts also help fight the "bad" cholesterol.
Anyone concerned about heart health should be aware of omega-3 fatty acids and their benefits. Including them in the diet has been shown to help lower the undesirable cholesterol levels as well as lowering blood pressure and regulate dangerous heart rhythms leading to heart attacks, according to the Mayo Clinic. Nuts are a good natural source for omega-3s.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble anti-oxidant preventing free radicals from taking hold in the body's tissue and protecting cell membranes. It has anti-inflammatory properties and may have potential in fighting cancer and dementia. Research points to Vitamin E also inhibiting plaque development in the arteries. Plaque could create blockages leading to chest pain, coronary artery disease or heart attacks.
Nuts are fibrous, the insoluble variety. Insoluble fiber helps move waste through the intestines and regulates pH levels there. Clearing the intestines reduces the risk of diverticulitis. Foods with fiber keep the stomach fuller longer, aiding in weight loss efforts.
How do some of the most popular nuts compare?
Almonds were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and are one of two nuts mentioned in the Bible. The "nut" is actually a seed of the almond fruit. In the United States, almonds were brought to California by the Spanish missionaries, but when the missions were abandoned, so were the trees. In 1840, almond trees were brought to New England from Europe but could not stand the climate. They were taken to California and planted (again), where they now thrive, and it is the only place in the US where almonds are commercially grown.
They can be eaten raw, toasted, roasted, slivered and flavored and are compatible with a variety of foods. They have the least calories at 160 per ounce (about 23 almonds) and the most calcium content of all nuts for stronger bones and teeth and are the only nut that is alkaline. This also helps build bones, helps the immune system, increases energy levels and assists in weight loss. In fact, international studies found that subjects who ate up to two ounces of almonds per day (about 1/4 cup) were more likely to lose weight and reduced their risk of gaining weight by up to 30 percent.
Walnuts, like almonds, are botanically drupes, or a seed surrounded by a fruit. Black walnuts and white walnuts are native to the Mississippi Valley and here, in Appalachia. Persian walnuts - also called English walnuts because they came to the United States from Britain - have been cultivated in India, Asia, the Middle East and Europe for thousands of years. Because the nut resembles the human brain, medieval doctors prescribed them for curing headaches. Today more than 90 percent of America's commercial crop (the English variety) is grown in California, and China is the world's leading walnut producer.
One-quarter cup of walnuts contains 94.5 percent of the daily recommended value of omega-3 fatty acids, 42.5 percent of the manganese daily value and 20 percent of the copper daily value. Walnuts in particular have marked positive effects - similar to olive oil's benefits - on blood quality, cell function, blood clotting and inflammation in research on cardiovascular health. These findings are also proving beneficial to those with type 2 diabetes and prostate and breast cancer. Eating only eight walnuts per day will reap improvements.
The peanut, a member of the pea family, is believed to originate in Brazil and Peru but is grown in China, Africa and the United States. Suffolk, Va. now claims to be "the peanut capital of the world." Peanuts are hugely popular, eaten raw, roasted, coated, in candies, bakery items and soups, on ice cream, as peanut butter and oil, and Americans alone consume 3.75 million pounds of peanuts on any given day. It is the only "nut" that grows underground.
The nutritional value of peanuts is similar to other nuts, but peanuts are also high in folate (folic acid), a vitamin that helps facilitate cell division and growth. Adequate intake of folic acid by both women and men is essential before pregnancy for safe and healthy development of the baby. A deficiency could cause birth defects. Other studies indicate that increasing folate could reduce the risk of stroke, help alleviate depression and fight cognitive decline leading to memory loss or dementia. One ounce of peanuts renders 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance.
One other nut with specific health benefits is the Brazil nut. A single nut per day provides more than the daily recommendation of the mineral selenium. Research indicates that selenium could be important in fighting prostate cancer. However, studies also show that too much selenium may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, so eating them in moderation or sparingly is healthier.
Nuts can be added to the diet throughout the day, and health experts say that combining them with healthy carbohydrates results in more benefits. For instance, peanut butter on whole grain bread or apple slices, or adding walnuts to yogurt or oatmeal will take longer to digest and break down the sugar in part because of the fiber and minerals in the nuts.
However, adding carbs to the nuts does not mean "chocolate coated." Processed sugars and many of the dried fruits in trail mixes add little if any nutritional value and lots of empty calories. One ounce of plain nuts on their own can range from 160 to over 200 calories, most of those from fats. Look for mixes that contain raw nuts or dry roasted nuts. Read labels to see additional hidden ingredients like hydrogenated oils and sugar. The fewer ingredients on the list, the purer the food. Dietitians recommend pre-packaging servings in baggies to avoid overeating and adding too many calories.
Try serving some cocoa or cinnamon dusted almonds on a cheese tray at your next party, or chop up a few walnuts and grapes to add to a cold chicken salad. Nuts are also good on cereals and oatmeal. Since so many varieties are available, it's easy to experiment with the flavors and textures, adding them to vegetables, breads and desserts to "go nuts" in a healthy way.