Long ago our ancestors gathered nuts as a means for survival. Although no longer needed to persevere, nuts are still a staple in our diets today. Found on coffee tables, at baseball games, tossed in salads, stir fried with vegetables and topped on sundaes, nuts play an integral role in our culture. And they should. There is emerging evidence linking the consumption of nuts to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
Two large epidemiological studies, the Nurses’ Health Study (1) and the Adventist Health Study (2) assessed the diets of over 110,000 men and women in relation to coronary heart disease. Adjusting for other coronary heart disease risk factors, they linked the intake of five or more servings (five ounces) of nuts per week to a 35 – 50 percent reduction in risk of coronary heart disease incidence and death (1,2). This is great news, as over the years nuts have received more negative reviews on health than positive ones. Now you and your family can enjoy the culinary versatility, flavor, aroma and crunch nuts provide while at the same time reaping their heart-protective benefits.
Nuts come from many different plant families and are classified as either tree nuts (a one-seeded fruit in a hard shell) or peanuts (a member of the legume family).
A one-ounce serving of nuts contains between 160 and 200 calories, of which 80-90 percent comprises fat. Despite this high-fat content, the fat in nuts is primarily in the monounsaturated form. Monounsaturated fats, when substituted for saturated fat in the diet, can help reduce total and LDL, or "bad" cholesterol levels while maintaining the "good" cholesterol, HDL.
Other added benefits of nuts are they are naturally cholesterol free, a good source of dietary fiber and protein, and contain a variety of heart disease-fighting vitamins and minerals like vitamin E (a potent antioxidant), folic acid, niacin, magnesium, vitamin B <sub>6</sub>, zinc, copper and potassium. Nuts also contain the nonessential amino acid arginine. Arginine is touted for it’s role in protecting the inner lining of the arterial walls, making them more pliable and less susceptible to atherogenesis. Lastly, nuts are a good source of healthful phytochemicals, biologically active plant chemicals with high antioxidant properties linked to prevention of coronary heart disease.
Because nuts are so calorically dense it is important to incorporate them into the diet sensibly. To avoid weight gain, substitute added nuts for food sources high in fat, specifically saturated fat. For example, top a salad with nuts instead of bacon bits and croutons. Proper serving size is also a must. Having a scale on-hand is your best bet, although not always practical. If a scale is not available, check the Nutrition Facts panel on the food label to locate the serving size. A one-ounce serving of nuts greatly differs.
The following equal one ounce: 24 almonds, 18 medium cashews, 12 hazelnuts or filberts, 8 medium Brazil nuts, 12 macadamia nuts, 35 peanuts, 15 pecan halves and 14 English walnut halves (3). Prepackaging nuts into small, single-serving containers or bags can help keep the servings under control. All it takes is one, one-ounce serving a day or five ounces per week of a variety of nuts to reap the heart-disease fighting benefits found in the research presented above.
However you enjoy them, remember that adding nuts to your diet is one of many nutritional strategies aimed at reducing your risk of coronary heart disease. The best way to reduce your risk is to combine a high-fiber diet, rich in complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) to a variety of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy each day to reap optimal heart-health benefits. Add to the equation a healthy body weight and regular physical activity and you can effectively reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.
** Note: a strong association between a reduced incidence of coronary heart disease and consumption of peanut butter was not found in the articles referenced. However, peanut butter can be incorporated into a healthful eating pattern and still provides a variety of heart-disease fighting nutrients. Consume in moderation.
Melissa Stevens, MS, RD, LD
Nutrition Program Coordinator
Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitative Services
For more information on a heart-healthy diet plan, please contact the Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program at 216.444.9353 (or toll-free at 800.223.2273, extension 49353) and we can schedule a nutrition consultation.
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