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I rarely encounter competitors who aren’t completely enamored of nuts and who lament their absence during contest prep. And for good reason. The substantial texture and flavor of nuts have captured the interest of the general population and have elevated nuts to superfood status. However, due to their significant nutrient density, “too much of a good thing” can certainly be applied to nuts of any kind. I have encountered patients who may have previously been in the habit of mindlessly polishing off an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting and who have similarly finished an entire jar of nuts, believing that the health benefits of nuts could somehow negate the caloric assault on their weight loss plans.
Everything in Moderation
That being said, I am far more likely to praise the benefits of nuts than I am to discourage their consumption. As a self-professed nut lover I am well aware of how delectable they are, yet I usually will portion them out in an effort to prevent any overindulgence. This is especially true when I consume nut butters. I know that if I keep the almond butter jar open, I am likely to dip into it once more, so I make myself remove a serving size then quickly seal the jar and put it away. When you consider that the average nut butter contains approximately 190 calories per 2 tablespoons and 16 grams of fat, the calories can stack up very quickly indeed. However, on a positive note, researchers in Spain discovered that frequent nut consumption was associated with a decreased risk of weight gain.
Benefits of Nut Consumption:
May help to lower cholesterol
Rich in arginine, which enhances blood flow
Rich in fiber, unsaturated fatty acids and phytochemicals
Contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats which are cardioprotective
Best plant source of protein
Rich in vitamin E, B vitamins, selenium, calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and phosphorous
Rich in a number of compounds which may protect against gallstone disease
May reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration
Negative Aspects of Nut Consumption:
High fat content
Many nuts are flavored with sugar, added fat, sodium, chemicals and preservatives
High in calories • Some people have allergies to nuts which in some cases can serve to be fatal
Contain oxalates which can crystallize and form kidney stones
“Nutty Top Five”
Though all nuts provide superior health benefits, I consider the five nuts listed below to be the best of the bunch for various reasons. Make sure to opt for the raw or dry roasted varieties whenever possible. When nuts are roasted in oil, there is a high probability that they have either been heated in hydrogenated oils or subjected to high temperatures which can destroy their nutrient properties. Studies recommend a daily intake of one to two ounces of nuts as part of a healthy diet.
Pecans: This is the most caloric nut in this list at 200 calories for 18 to 20 halves, and also contains the smallest amount of protein at 3 grams while packing 20 grams of fat. However, these slightly sweet nuts still offer health benefits when consumed. Pecans contain a plant steroid called beta-sitosterol, which helps to relieve the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. They are extremely rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, and ellagic acid, which is a potent antioxidant. Pecans are excellent when added to the vegan baked goods I make, and I especially love them in my admittedly non-contest friendly Thanksgiving stuffing!
Cashews: Technically, cashews are thick-shelled seeds, but confer all of the general benefits of nuts, including monosaturated fatty acids like oleic and palmitoleic acids. They are quite calorie dense at 180 calories for 14 nuts but also contain a number of important minerals, including manganese, potassium, selenium, copper and zinc. Another important substance which can be found in cashews is zea-xanthin, which is selectively absorbed into the retinal macula lutea in the eyes and confers protection against age-related macular degeneration. The texture of these seeds is so meaty and satisfying that they easily made it onto my top five list. In addition, cashew butter is delectable! If you need a change from peanut butter, try this option.
Hazelnuts: These nuts are loaded with folate, vitamin E, and B vitamins. I recently started eating these nuts after encountering them in a mixed assortment, and was surprised by their distinctive flavor and relatively hard texture. Hazelnuts are excellent snacking nuts and good for a change.
Walnuts: Walnuts are extremely rich in alpha linoleic acid (ALA) which can reduce inflammation and oxidation in the arteries after eating fatty meals. A serving of 14 halves contains 180 calories but also provides about 90% of the recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists at University of Scranton, Pennsylvania recently discovered that walnuts have highest levels of polyphenolic antioxidants than any other common edible nuts. Walnuts are incredibly versatile and can be mixed into vegan baked goods, fudge, salads, Greek yogurt, oatmeal, or eaten plain.
Almonds: These nuts have the lowest calorie density, and also contain the most calcium of any nut. They are rich in dietary fiber and phytochemicals and confer excellent protection against diseases. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E, with 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin E packed into a 30 gram serving. Over the past year I have replaced peanut butter with almond butter because I vastly prefer the flavor of the almond variety. I have also heard numerous people report that almond butter was more easily digestible than peanut butter. As for the whole nut, I consider the almond’s textural variety and its flavor to be superior to other nuts, making it my go-to when I grab a serving.
Summary: As long as nuts are not consumed in the same volume as lean meats and vegetables are, daily consumption will confer a myriad of health benefits to one’s diet. If you haven’t already incorporated nuts into your meal plan, consider doing so in order to optimize your health.