It’s true that nuts are high in fat, but it’s heart-healthy fat, and that fat comes with nutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Why should you be eating nuts (unless you’re allergic to them, of course)? For starters, a wealth of research supports the role of nuts in reducing the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Nuts also appear to have benefits for brain and gut health, as well as for longevity — people who regularly include nuts in their diet tend to live longer.
Unfortunately, national health data shows that many people don’t eat nuts at all. One reason is likely that nuts are victims of lingering confusion about dietary fat — namely whether we should be embracing fat or avoiding fat. Recent consumer research reveals that 81 percent of people know that there are “good” fats and “bad” fats, but only 19 percent know which fats are which. It’s true that nuts are high in fat, but it’s heart-healthy fat, and that fat comes packaged with fiber, high-quality protein, essential vitamins and minerals and an array of phytonutrients that appear to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
While I love all nuts for their different flavors and culinary uses, my daily go-to nuts are almonds and walnuts. Their health benefits are the best researched, plus I’ve had an opportunity to visit California walnut and almond farms and processing facilities. Fun fact: most walnut and almond farms in California are family farms.
Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats, which may explain why they’ve been shown to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol while maintaining — or even improving — “good” HDL cholesterol. Those healthy fats, along with vitamin E, magnesium and potassium, contribute to almonds’ cardiovascular health benefits. Walnuts are an excellent source of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, including plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. They also boast the highest antioxidant content of any nut, making it one of the best nuts for anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s fitting that walnuts are shaped like a brain — walnut consumption is linked to better brain function in adults. They’re a natural source of melatonin, which is critical in the regulation of sleep and our daily (circadian) rhythms.
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The evidence is substantial enough that dietary guidelines in the United States, Canada and other countries recommend including nuts as part of a healthy diet. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that for most nuts, 1.5 ounces per day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, “may reduce the risk of heart disease.” This is provided that you’re eating nuts instead of something else, not simply adding them to what you’re already eating.
Nuts have been part of the human diet for thousands of years, but a lot of people avoid them, fearing that they are too high in fat and calories. Although nuts are a calorie-dense food (more calories in less volume), research shows that moderate consumption of nuts isn’t associated with weight gain. This may be because nuts are good at satisfying hunger — and we don’t absorb all of the calories in nuts. Recent research from the US Department of Agriculture found that walnuts have 21 percent fewer calories and almonds have 23 percent fewer calories than previously thought. Still, it’s good to be mindful of portion sizes. One easy way is to keep a ¼-cup measure by your bag of nuts, or pre-measure snack packs of nuts to keep in your desk, bag or purse.
There are many ways to add nuts to your day. Pair an ounce of nuts with a piece of fruit for an afternoon snack. Add them to salads, oatmeal, yogurt and fruit, smoothies, or grain dishes for flavor, texture and a big nutrition boost. Make your own trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, flaked coconut and some dark chocolate chips for a satisfying crunchy snack. With Thanksgiving around the corner, why not slip some nuts into your menu with these easy, make-ahead appetizers/snacks?
Toasted Almond and White Bean Hummus
This is a variation on hummus, with white beans instead of chickpeas, and almonds instead of tahini (sesame seed paste). Serve with raw vegetables or toasted pita chips. You can also use it as a spread on crackers or toasted baguette slices.
Makes 2 ½ cups
½ cup almonds
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 14-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
Water for thinning (optional)
1. Toast almonds in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown, stirring occasionally. Cool to room temperature.
2. Put toasted almonds, along with the olive oil and chopped garlic, in a food processor or blender and puree until fairly smooth, scraping sides with a rubber spatula as needed.
3. Add the beans, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, pepper and spices to the food processor or blender, then blend until the mixture has a smooth, even consistency, adding some water to thin the mixture, if desired. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Sweet and Spicy Walnuts
My taste testers referred to these walnuts as “crack.” Curious about the egg white? It helps the spices stick to the nuts.
1 egg white
2 cups walnut halves and pieces
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
pinch of nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large, shallow baking pan with parchment paper or foil.
2. In a large bowl, whisk egg white until foamy. Add the sugar, salt and spices and whisk until blended.
3. Add walnuts, toss until they are evenly coated, then spread in a single layer on the prepared baking pan. Bake 15-18 minutes, stirring once after about 8 minutes, until the walnuts look dry and toasted.
4. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Store in an airtight container.