We’re at the tail end of a low-fat diet craze that warned people to avoid nuts as a high-fat snack. But in reality, low-fat diets are one of the worst things you could do for your health! Your body needs healthy fat sources. It’s the type of fat that really matters. Refined and processed fats are bad for us. But plant fats, or physterols, found in nuts are one of many healthy and natural fats.
Nuts contain a host of nutrients that battle heart disease and diabetes, boost brain function and the immune system and can help you lose weight.
What’s a nut?
Nuts differ from legumes in that they don’t open on their own. The pea pod legume will open along its seam naturally. Legumes are most often attached to the inner wall of their pod or shell and contain more than one seed per pod (nuts contain two). Legumes are high in protein and replenish nitrogen in the soil. They most often grow along or underneath the ground. Nuts tend to grow up higher on bushes or trees and are high in fat (about 80%).
Almonds, Macadamia nuts, pecans and walnuts are drupes. Drupes have multiple layers that enclose a single seed: skin, flesh, a stone or pit and an inner seed. A peach is an example of a drupe. The almond is a dry drupe and must be extracted before it’s sold.
Health Benefits of Nuts
Gamma-tocopherol is Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant found in nuts that has proven effective in cancer prevention.
Vitamin E protects men from prostate cancer and a new study conducted by the Texas Woman’s University suggests that it may combat lung cancer as well, the leading cancerous killer.
Nuts also contain selenium, another antioxidant that may prevent breast cancer.
Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Several studies have found that nuts help lower LDL cholesterol levels by as much as 11% and raise HDL levels.
Other studies have found that they lower the risk of heart disease. A diet that includes nuts helps people to keep their weight down, reduces the risk of developing blood clots and improves the lining of arteries.
Nuts are also packed with magnesium, which most Americans don’t get enough of. Magnesium helps balance the calcium/potassium ratio, crucial to heart health and blood pressure.
All kinds of nuts are proving to be brain food. They add mental clarity and support the nervous system in a variety of ways. They may even prevent Parkinson’s disease and boost your mood.
The high fatty-acid and protein levels in nuts nourish the nervous system.
Nuts contain boron, a trace mineral that regulates the electrical activity in the brain and contributes to alertness.
Thiamin is known as the “nerve vitamin” and nuts contain concentrated levels of this.
The high Vitamin E content in nuts is linked to lower incidences of Parkinson’s disease and Vitamin E may also help slow the progression of Parkinson’s.
High magnesium content in nuts dilates blood vessels, including those of the brain.
Methionine is found in nuts and our bodies use it to produce choline, a major structural and functional part of brain-cell membranes. Choline is used to make acetylcholine, a brain chemical that is vital to memory function and brain development.
Phenylalanine in nuts stimulates the brain to produce neurotransmitters adrenaline, dopamine and noradrenaline, which boost mental clarity and mood. These chemicals are also involved in the pain-pleasure response. Phenylalanine also combats Parkinson’s disease.
Nuts contain riboflavin, another memory-booster.
The Best Nuts
All nuts have health benefits, but so far, studies show that almonds are high in vitamin E and magnesium, cashews have more magnesium than almonds but less vitamin E, Brazil nuts contain the highest levels of selenium, and walnuts contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Eating a variety of nuts is your best bet.
Almonds are the most nutrient-dense nuts. They’re rich in vitamin E, magnesium, protein, fiber, copper, and selenium, as well as potassium, calcium, phosphorous and iron. They contain over 20 flavonoids that enhance the effects of vitamin E and 70% of their fat is monounsaturated.
Brazil nuts contain protein, fiber, vitamin E, copper, niacin, magnesium and selenium.
Cashews are a low-fat nut and contain a good portion of oleic acid, the heart-healthy fat. They also contain biotin, copper, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Gingko has a wide variety of proven health benefits. Gingko nuts may prove as effective as gingko extract in improving circulation and memory, preventing cancer and heart disease and combating Alzheimer’s and asthma.
Macadamia nuts are high in protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, magnesium and potassium.
Valencia peanuts contain monounsaturated fats that lower triglycerides. They contain all 9 essential amino acids and the antioxidant reservatrol. You want to stay away from regular peanuts however, since they are far more prone to mold and are higher in Omega-6 fatty acids (this is the fatty acid that is usually far higher than it needs to be in most people).
Pecans contain over 19 vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and E, B vitamins, calcium, copper, folic acid, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. They’ve also been found to help lower cholesterol and clear arteries.
Walnuts are being touted as a new superfood, loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. They contain high levels of alpha-linoleic and linoleic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin E, ellagic acid and L-arginine.
Linoleic acid helps reduce body fat and weight, lowers cholesterol and boosts the immune system and brain function. Ellagic acid is a powerful antioxidant that combats cancer and L-arginine promotes healing and detoxification.
The many antioxidants in walnuts help prevent inflammatory conditions such as asthma and arthritis, reduce cholesterol and increase blood vessel health.
The Worst Nuts
Processing can affect the integrity of a nut’s health benefits. Pre-shelled nuts aren’t as healthy as nuts in their natural casing because natural fats and oils are more exposed and can break down and become rancid.
Lots of salt and sugar will also compromise the health benefits of nuts, and cholesterol-lowering and weight-loss benefits will only be realized if other sources of fat and calories are reduced in the diet. Nuts should substitute for a portion of unhealthier sources of fat and calories: not complement them.
Roasted nuts are decidedly unhealthy because they are often processed in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils—the harmful fat source.
Along with nuts, other seeds provide major health benefits. Flax seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds all contain omega-3’s, tryptophan, vitamins and antioxidants that boost brain function and the immune system, fight free radical damage and depression, and lower the risk of many diseases and disorders.