Nut-phobic no more!
There’s something about the nut bowl at a party which can elicit all sorts of alarm among weight conscious magazine editors. The way some editors warn us about it, being stationed next to the nut bowl while schmoozing at a soiree is the modern-day equivalent of Odysseus at sea, being lured to shipwreck by the Sirens’ calls. With equally epic consequences (for your weight, of course).
But the truth is, no celebration of national heart awareness month could be complete without inviting nuts to the party. And eating them. There is just way too much good data that shows how beneficial to cardiovascular health nuts can be. (Hey–Is this why we call people ‘health nuts?’)
All fats are not created equal
Yes, nuts are high in fat. And for those of us who came of age before the 2000’s, we can be forgiven for thinking that dietary fat is something to be minimized and avoided. (This has been the mantra for awhile, after all.) But the truth is, there are different kinds of fat which are distinguished by their chemical structure. (I won’t geek out on you here except to say that it has to do with how the carbon atoms in a fat molecule are bonded to eachother. Yawn.) Some types are harmful to your cardiovascular health by promoting increased blood cholesterol levels that go on to clog your arteries. These are the saturated and trans fats, and are found primarily in red meat, whole dairy, cheese, and in margarine or other partially-hydrogenated oils used in commercial baking or frying.
But some types of fat actually promote cardiovascular health by lowering your blood cholesterol levels. Let’s dwell on this for a moment. It’s not that they’re ‘less bad’ for you. They are actually actively *good for you* and should comprise the majority of your dietary fat. The main type of this fat is monounsaturated fat, and it’s the kind that makes up most of the fat in nuts. (The other type is polyunsaturated fat, of which some kinds are great and others are so-so. Stay tuned for a future posting about that.) Sources of monounsaturated fats include nuts, avocado, seeds (including sesame seeds/tahini), olives/olive oil and canola oil. The fact that so many of these foods feature so prominently in traditional Mediterranean diets is believed to be a key reason behind lower rates of cardiovascular disease among people who follow that dietary pattern.
So how much of a protective effect do nuts provide?
A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition pooled the results of four very large epidemiological studies and concluded that people with the highest levels of nut intake in their diets had, on average, a 35% reduced risk of coronary heart disease incidence compared to people with the lowest intakes. The results showed a dose-response, meaning that higher intakes of nuts were associated with more protection. In one of the individual studies that comprised this meta-analysis, researchers found a 30% reduction in risk for heart disease when nuts (in this case, almonds) were replacing an equivalent amount of carbohydrate calories in the diet… but an even greater 45% risk reduction when the almonds replaced an equivalent amount of saturated fat calories in the diet. In other words, including nuts in your diet is great. Replacing foods in your diet that are high in saturated fat with nuts appears to be even greater.
Can all of those benefits be just from some monounsaturated fat?
Actually, no! Research shows that the effect size of the decreased risk for heart disease observed in people who eat nuts cannot be accounted for solely through their cholesterol-lowering effects. There are several additional mechanisms that researchers believe are at play when you eat nuts which may account for their impressive impact on cardiovascular health.
- Nuts are high in antioxidants, like Vitamin E and flavonoids, which can help prevent LDL cholesterol from being oxidized in your arteries; oxidized LDL cholesterol is a step in the process to artery-clogging plaque formation. Walnuts, pecans and chestnuts apparently have the highest antioxidant levels of all tree nuts, but the skin of almonds in particular contains very high levels of flavonoids (which you may remember from our dark chocolate discussion)… so go for almonds with the skin instead of blanched ones whenever possible! And peanuts have higher levels of antioxidants than most fruits; they’re reportedly on par with berries in this department.
- Nuts are a good source of several nutrients that promote heart cardiovascular health, like manganese (walnuts, peanuts, almonds), magnesium (cashews, almonds) and copper (all). Without going into excruciating detail about each of these nutrients, let us just say that they play various important roles in regulating your heartbeat, maintaining a healthy blood pressure and keeping your blood vessels from rupturing.
- Walnuts in particular are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. (Click here for a refresher course on what’s so important about omega-3’s as far as your heart is concerned.) One meager little ounce of walnuts (1/4 cup) contains a full day’s recommended amount of these anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids.
Which nuts, and what’s the best way to add nuts to your diet?
The bulk of the clinical research to date has focused on almonds, walnuts and peanuts, all of which have been linked to happier heart outcomes. So these are a good place to start. (But there’s a world of choice out there, so go…well….nuts.) Generally speaking, 1 oz of nuts has between 160-200 calories, so a little truly goes a long way.
Eating about 1 oz of nuts every other day could be a healthy goal, provided that you account for the extra calories that they provide by replacing something else or making sure to keep up with your physical activity. The amount of nuts in one ounce will vary by type of nut, so you can consult this handy-dandy chart from the nice people at University of Nebraska to see how many nuts we’re talking about here. I’ll grant you that it feels incredibly lame to count out nuts, but if you do it once, then you’ll be able to eyeball a proper portion in the future. Alternatively, the clever marketers at the Almond Board have devised a “perfect portion snack tin” to help you get your ounce-a-day. Personally, I think most people can improvise and find their own, but if a $2 tin helps you keep nuts on your person at all times, then you have my blessing. Nut butters are also a fun way to get your nuts on, though traditionally they have been a less portable snack. I say traditionally, because I’ve recently seen these super-cute individual 1-oz nut-butter packets at Whole Foods. Yes, they are a rip-off. Yes, they create additional packaging waste. And yes, I want to buy them so badly so that I can take my apples-with-peanut-butter on the road with me.
A handful of nuts and some lowfat greek yogurt or fruit would be a really good substitute for a sugary “energy bar” or a serving of store-bought granola that may have a fair share of added sugar. (I rotate this in as one of my 3pm go-to snacks, when I need 200-300 calories and some fiber to tide me over until dinner.) Nut butters on whole grain crackers, a piece of toast, some carrot sticks or your fruit of choice are also a smart choice.
But I also like to cook with nuts, and find myself pairing them with string beans a lot. Many people are familiar with green beans and almonds as a side dish (I like using sesame oil for mine to add to the nutty flavor, and if you’re lazy like me, you can just do it all in a sautee pan instead of baking.) But recently, I promoted nuts to entree status and made them the main event in a quickie String-Bean-and- Cashew-Curry for dinner, served with quinoa to help boost up the protein content. (It was a super-simplistic riff on a Indian string bean curry dish called Lathande Upkari.)
Here’s how I did it (to serve 4):
- Put on a pot of quinoa to cook before starting the process
- Using kitchen shears (scissors), cut washed string beans (maybe about 1.25-1.5 lb) into bite-sized smaller segments (around 3 pieces per bean).
- Slice an onion and satute it in olive oil in a wok-ish pan until it turns translucent
- Add a sprinkle of ground ginger and a packet of whatever Arora Creation Indian Spice Mix** you have around in the pantry and saute for just a minute, until the onions are coated.
- Add 1 15-oz can of diced tomatoes and blend until everything is mixed and bubbling
- Add the string beans stir them around until they’re nice and covered with sauce. Covered pan to let them cook in the steam from the tomato juices.
- Once the string beans are nice and bright green, just soft enough so they feel cooked when you bite into them but not mushy/wilted and grey, uncover and taste for salt level. Add additional seasoning as desired.
- To serve: Put cooked quinoa into each serving bowl, layer on the string bean curry, and top with 1/4 cup (~1 oz) of cashews per bowl.
Replace a red-meat-centric meal with this quick, savory curry and I’d say you’re well on your way to discovering the meaning behind FDR’s immortal words: there is nut-hing to fear about nuts except the fear of nuts itself. Or something like that.
** Don’t have a pre-packaged spice mix? Improvise your own: Sprinkle ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and a dash of cayenne pepper over the mixture to taste (use at least twice as much cumin as the coriander).Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.