When it comes to snacking, I find myself falling into habits, such as filling up my crystal candy dish with Hershey’s Kisses or M&Ms, then feeling only temporarily satisfied once I eat them. So recently, I tried a new approach. Instead of chocolate, I filled the bowl up with pistachios and almonds and, a few hours later, was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had finished only about half the bowl, but felt completely full. More importantly, not only had I satisfied my need for a nibble, but I’d done so with a food that was entirely nutritious.
For many years, nuts’ high fat content was perceived as far outweighing their health benefits, so they weren’t considered an essential part of a balanced diet. However, perspectives started to change when, in 2003, the Food and Drug Administration released a public health statement that just 1.5 ounces (approximately a handful) of nuts each day might reduce the risk of heart disease. Since then, nuts have been making a serious comeback as one of the most important components of a balanced diet. The following varieties top the nutritionists’ lists.
The Right Fat: Almonds
Smooth in shape and sweet in taste, almonds provide health benefits aplenty and are in season year-round in some states, such as California. Almonds are a rich source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fat—one of the two “good” fats—and help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. They may also aid in weight loss and weight-gain prevention by making our bodies feel full and satisfied, thus encouraging less overall food intake. A recent study found that people who consume nuts at least twice a week are less likely to gain weight than people who almost never eat them.
There are few things you should keep in mind when eating almonds. To maximize the nutritious benefits of this nut, eat it raw, unsalted, and always with its “skin” (its dry outer layer) on. Similar to wine, tea, and fruits, the skins of almonds contain powerful antioxidant flavonoids, which help improve the complexion and shield the body from the overall effects of aging.
The Brain Food: Walnuts
Coincidentally enough, the nut that slightly resembles a brain is, in fact, good for the brain. Walnuts are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are protective fats our bodies cannot produce naturally. Omega-3s help brain cells to operate more efficiently by acting as a sort of cerebral absorption layer, allowing important nutrients in and blocking out unwanted waste. These special fatty acids carry a number of related benefits, including cardiovascular protection, protection against rheumatoid arthritis, bone-loss prevention, and protection against certain inflammatory skin diseases, such as eczema and psoriasis. Studies have shown that eating four walnuts a day greatly boosts omega-3 levels in the body. Walnuts may also help to prevent gallstones, ward off and control high blood pressure, and protect against bone loss. Plus, they’re a great source of melatonin, which helps in shielding cells from oxidative damage and works as an incredibly effective—and natural—sleep aid. So if you’re looking for a good night of uninterrupted rest, skip the warm milk and reach for a handful of walnuts instead.
More Antioxidants Than Green Tea: Pistachios
It’s true. In comparison with one hundred other foods, pistachios have the highest amount of antioxidants—beating out even green tea, which is infamous for its antioxidant properties. Similar to spinach or broccoli, pistachios are high in lutein—an antioxidant proven to prevent macular degeneration. Studies have also shown pistachios to be effective in preventing lung cancer, as well as other types of cancer. In addition, this cholesterol-free nut is a great source of phosphorus, which helps strengthen bones and teeth. Pistachios are very high in fiber, too. In fact, they boast one of the highest fiber contents of all nuts.
Not Just for Pie: Pecans
This nut usually pops up in holiday pies each year, but by no means should pecans be limited to once-a-year appearances. These flavorful nuts are a high-quality source of protein and contain very few carbohydrates and no cholesterol. They’re also naturally sodium-free. Because of their rich concentration of plant sterols, pecans have been linked to guarding against gallstones among women and reducing “bad” cholesterol levels. Also, a 2004 study ranked pecans as one of the top fifteen sources of antioxidants.
Shaped Like a Kidney: Cashews
Cashews spruce up stir-fries and stand strong on their own. While they may taste creamier and more buttery than other nuts, cashews actually have a lower fat content, about 75 percent of which is oleic acid, which promotes cardiovascular health and can be especially beneficial to people with diabetes when it’s a component of a low-fat diet. Cashews are also full of magnesium, which benefits the body in a number of ways, including supporting bone structure, helping reduce the frequency of migraine headaches, and promoting consistent sleeping patterns for women going through menopause.
Nuts About Nuts: Rules to Remember
Nuts are most beneficial when eaten raw and unsalted. Adding salt to anything, even nuts, will only increase the body’s sodium levels and counteract the health benefits of eating the actual nut. If you have a choice between pieces, halves, or wholes, choose the nut as a whole. The less manipulation a nut has undergone, the better. An untouched nut has all its nutrients intact. The recommended serving size for all types of nuts is about one to one and a half ounces per day.
Next time you’ve got a hankering for a little late-night sustenance, grab a handful of nutrition from your candy dish—not filled with candy, but stocked with nutrient-rich nuts.