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In a nutshell: From almonds to walnuts, this food group has some great health benefits

January 4, 2019

We dietitians hear this question a lot: “What’s the healthiest type of nut?” Well, just like with other food groups, there is no single nut that reigns supreme. Each type has a unique array of nutrients and phytochemicals. Here, you can learn what you can gain when you reach for nuts. In general, when part of an overall healthy diet, eating nuts is linked to lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, healthier cholesterol and triglyceride levels, a smaller waist circumference, better blood pressure levels, less insulin resistance and more. Read on to learn more about five of the most common types of nuts:

Pecans

The only major tree nut that is indigenous to America is the pecan. This powerful nut is packed with flavonoids, a family of phytonutrients also found in fruits, vegetables and freshly brewed tea. In a small study of adults with excess abdominal fat, eating about ¼ cup of pecans daily for four weeks improved insulin sensitivity and other markers of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The mechanism of action isn’t clear, but the benefit may come from pecans’ phytonutrients or from replacing foods with less healthful saturated fats with pecans’ healthful unsaturated fats, said Diane L. McKay, Ph.D., nutrition scientist at Tufts University and a researcher involved in this study.

Serving size: 20 halves. Nutrition: 196 calories; 20.4 g fat; 6 g protein.

Peanuts

As part of the legume family, the peanut is not a true nut. Yet we often group it as a nut because its nutrient profile is more similar to a tree nut than to other legumes, like chickpeas and lentils. Affordability is one of the peanut’s major strong suits, though lower price doesn’t mean fewer health benefits. Research in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that, just like other nuts, eating peanuts is associated with lower rates of mortality. Americans who consumed peanuts regularly over a five-year period were less likely to die of any cause compared to people who rarely ate peanuts.

Serving size: 28 peanuts. Nutrition: 161 calories; 14 g fat; 7 g protein.

Walnuts

According to a study of about 34,000 American adults, walnuts might cut the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by half compared to those who don’t eat nuts. “For each handful — increase in walnut intake — the prevalence of diabetes dropped 47 percent. The effect appears to be more potent among women than men,” said Lenore Arab, professor emerita of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the primary investigator of this study. Other research suggests that walnuts are good for the gut. They serve up fiber, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids and health-shielding phytonutrients such as ellagitannins, melatonin and polyphenols.

Serving size: 14 halves. Nutrition: 185 calories; 18 g fat; 4.3 g protein.

Pistachios

Calorie-counters rejoice because each pistachio weighs in at only 3 calories. Plus, when you eat shell-in pistachios, cracking the shell slows down the snacking process; the shells also serve as a visual reminder of how much you have eaten, which may assist with portion control. The green nut is bursting with lutein and zeaxanthin, two relatives of beta-carotene. These two phytonutrients make their way to both the brain and the macula of the eye, where they appear to protect against cognitive decline and age-related macular degeneration.

Serving size: 49 kernels. Nutrition: 159 calories; 13 g fat; 6 g protein.

Almonds

Not only does eating almonds in place of less nutritious foods lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but it also appears to improve the quality of HDL (“good”) cholesterol when following a traditional cholesterol-lowering diet. In a small study, researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that replacing a banana muffin daily with 1 ½ ounces of almonds led to a greater amount of the largest HDL particles. HDL particles work by ferrying cholesterol from the blood vessels out of the body. Larger HDL-cholesterol particles mean more of the bad stuff can be carried away.

Serving size: 23 almonds. Nutrition: 162 calories; 14 g fat; 6 g protein.

What about other types of nuts?

A look at the nutritional benefits of other nuts:

Brazil nuts: Sodium free. Excellent source of magnesium, copper, selenium and phosphorous.Cashews: Good source of magnesium, manganese, vitamin K, phosphorous and zinc.Chestnuts: Low in fat, cholesterol free. Great source of vitamin C and folic acid.Hazelnuts: Sodium free. Excellent source of copper, manganese and vitamin E.Macadamia: Sodium free. Excellent source of manganese. Good source of vitamin B1.Pine nuts: Good source of manganese, copper, vitamin E, vitamin K, phosphorous and zinc.Sunflower kernels: Excellent source of vitamins B1 and B6, copper, magnesium. Good source of fiber, folate and iron.

Get nutty

Make nuts a part of your regular diet with these ideas:Spread nut butter on your morning toast instead of butter or cream cheeseSprinkle chopped nuts on cereal or yogurtToss nuts into a salad or stir-fryTop fruit or crackers with nut butterTry nut-encrusted fish or chicken, such as pecan-encrusted trout

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