I’ve always been a nut about nuts. Back when I was a kid in the Parkmead School cafeteria, my mouth watered whenever I pulled a peanut butter sandwich out of my crumpled lunch sack. Saturday matinees at the El Rey weren’t complete without the crunchy nirvana of an Almond Joy candy bar. And I was ecstatic when Mom and Dad popped open a can of cashews for their bridge parties.
Then I grew up, was told that nuts are salty and fattening, and for a while did my best to snack on carrots and celery instead. But those days are done: I’m back to devouring nuts. Yes, they’re laden with fat—a mere handful contains around 200 calories—but I now know they’re fats that are good for me. In fact, the formerly naysaying experts have come full circle, and now are encouraging us to eat them on a regular basis.
“For years, the high calorie content of nuts gave them a bad rap,” says Christine Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition and associate dean at Georgia State University. “But a growing number of studies confirm their value as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”
What makes a nut so healthy? Take your pick. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. They’re full of fiber. And they’re loaded with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, specifically the omega-3s so highly touted these days for reducing the risk of stroke, arthritis, and heart disease. The FDA has even okayed health claims on some packaged nuts, including almonds, pistachios, peanuts, walnuts, and pecans; labels can now say that eating about 1.5 ounces a day of most nuts “as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol” may lower your risk of heart disease.
Recently they got another boost when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a pair of studies suggesting that Europeans who follow a healthy lifestyle and a Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of nuts, are blessed with a lower incidence not just of heart disease but of cancer as well—and lead demonstrably more robust lives. And a separate study from Harvard published in 2002 found that women who ate peanut butter or other nut products five or more times a week significantly lowered their risk of Type 2 diabetes.
That was all the excuse I needed. And since I started eating them again, I’ve noticed that my borderline-high blood pressure has dropped. I can’t give nuts all the credit—I’m working on cutting out some of the stress in my life, too—but there could be a connection. Studies suggest that most nuts are high in the amino acid arginine, which helps relax blood vessels. Still, what I’m enjoying most about the good news on nuts is not necessarily the health payoff, but that a peanut butter sandwich is no longer a guilty pleasure.
Nuts may be good for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to eat them any old way. The less they’re fussed with, the healthier they’ll be for you. Here are some guidelines for making the most of them.
Keep it simple. You won’t be doing your weight or your blood pressure any favors by indulging in nuts that are roasted in oil, excessively salted, or sweetened with honey or sugar. But raw nuts often don’t taste good. “It’s best to eat them dry-roasted, and minimally salted,” says Texas Children’s Hospital nutritionist Roberta Anding.
Don’t overdo it. Most nuts pack 160 to 190 calories and 14 to 19 grams of fat into a single ounce. “Consider putting single handfuls in plastic bags to snack on,” says nutritionist Christine Rosenbloom of Georgia State University. “That way you won’t end up eating too many.”
Buy a better butter. Peanut butter has a higher percentage of saturated fat than some other nut butters and many conventional brands contain sweeteners or partially hydrogenated oils to improve spreadability. Look instead for natural peanut, almond, and cashew nut butters, which are free of trans fatty acids and other additives.
Store smart. As a rule, whole nuts stay fresh longer. That’s because a nut’s fat is concentrated in its oils, which can oxidize and turn rancid when chopped, heated, or exposed to air or dampness. Once opened, containers of nuts and nut butters do best in the refrigerator. For long-term storage of whole nuts, use the freezer. “Most nuts have an optimum shelf life of two months at cool room temperatures, eight months in the fridge, and up to a year in the freezer,” says dietitian Cheryl Forberg, author of Stop the Clock! Cooking.
Be allergy aware. Peanuts, which are actually a legume, and tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and walnuts, are a leading cause of serious food allergies. Before serving anything made with nuts, be sure to let your guests know.
By Richard Mahler