I often treat patients who are trying to eat a healthy diet, and they look to me for advice about nutrition. With many people struggling to replace fast food with vegetables, fruit and lean protein, it often feels like eating right is just about deprivation. Whenever a patient starts talking about all the foods that they can no longer eat, I remind them of the delicious and healthy foods they can eat.
Take nuts, for example. Until recently, no one considered them “diet food.” Nuts were thought of as too fatty and high in calories to be part of a healthy meal plan. Thanks to several major studies, the tides have officially turned. I want to share the multitude of benefits associated with this new superfood and show you how to make nuts part of your healthy diet.
Nuts, In a Nutshell
Nuts contribute to optimal health in several ways. They not only contain elements which fight disease, but they also assist with weight loss. As you know, gaining weight is one of the greatest predictors of conditions like diabetes and heart disease. As I evaluate studies on nutrition and heart health, I regularly find that nuts are linked with decreased risk of death from heart disease in both women and men.
Just look at the evidence:
– The 1996 Iowa Women’s Health Study showed that women who consumed a serving of nuts more than four times per week were 40% less likely to die of heart disease than those who consumed nuts less often.
– The 2002 Physicians Health Study showed that men who consumed nuts just two or more times per week reduced their risk of sudden cardiac-related death.
– A 1992 study done on a wide range of subjects showed that daily nut eaters had 60% fewer heart attacks than those who ate nuts less than once per month.
All of this evidence led the FDA to issue a statement about nuts and heart health in 2003. They agreed that eating 1.5-ounces of certain nuts per day may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Though nearly every type of nut has specific health benefits, the FDA’s statement only applies to the seven types containing less than four grams of saturated fat per serving: almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.
Saturated fat raises cholesterol, so many people need to monitor their intake of this type of fat. However, most nuts contain high levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are known to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. Certain nuts, such as walnuts, even contain omega-3 fatty acids which fight inflammation, offer cardiovascular protection, and promote better cognitive function. In addition to beneficial fats, nuts are good sources of fiber, protein, magnesium, and antioxidants.
Nuts and Weight Loss
During the 1990’s, nearly all my patients who wanted to lose weight went on low fat diets. The conventional wisdom of the time dictated that fat would make us fat. Now the picture is a bit more complex.
Nuts are high in calories. A 1.5-ounce serving of walnuts has 279 calories and 28 grams of fat – though only 2.6 of those fat grams are saturated. We have already looked at the benefits of healthy fat in nuts, but what about calories? When it comes to losing weight, reducing calorie intake is a critical component of any plan.
Fortunately, there is something special about eating nuts that doesn’t seem to cause weight gain. The Nurses’ Health Study showed that frequent nut eaters were slightly thinner, on average, than those who rarely ate nuts.
Other studies have shown that adding a daily serving of nuts without changing any other aspect of a person’s diet does not cause weight gain. The likely explanation for this finding is simply that nuts are a filling and satisfying food. The study subjects probably consumed fewer calories at meals after snacking on nuts.
My patients are so relieved to find a diet food that they can truly enjoy while reaping serious health benefits. Eating right may be critical to our health, but food is also about pleasure. I recommend finding foods you enjoy eating that are also nourishing to the body. If nuts are one of those foods, you may be eating your way to a longer, healthier life.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.