Ask the Dietitian: Should I Eat Nuts?

Q: I generally avoid nuts because they are high in fat, but I recently heard that they help prevent heart disease. Is that true?

Ginny Messina, R.D.: Yes, it’s true. Adding nuts to meals can make your heart-healthy vegan diet even healthier.

Nuts seem to provide a fairly unique combination of factors that protect heart health. For example, they are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, both of which lower blood cholesterol levels.

Nuts (such as hazelnuts in the above spread) are also rich in L-arginine, an amino acid that is a precursor to nitric oxide, a compound that helps keep arteries flexible. Antioxidants in nuts may protect LDL-cholesterol from becoming oxidized, and compounds in nuts also protect against inflammation and promote vascular health.

Given what we know about the fat, phytochemical and nutrient content of nuts, it’s not surprising that study after study shows that eating them is good for your heart. Clinical intervention studies show that adding nuts to diets causes LDL-cholesterol levels to drop. In large observational studies, eating nuts is associated with less inflammation in the body. A number of these studies have also linked regular nut consumption to lower risk for heart disease and hypertension. According to findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, the largest, longest running series of investigations of women’s health, substituting fat from just one ounce of nuts for the same number of calories from carbohydrate every day could lower risk for heart disease by as much as 30%.

A serving of nuts is one ounce or about ¼ cup. Depending on your calorie needs, it’s reasonable to consume one to two servings of nuts per day. And surprisingly, regular consumption of nuts isn’t associated with weight gain.

The nuts that have been studied the most are walnuts and almonds, but all tree nuts seem to offer similar benefits. Nuts can also be a very good source of zinc in vegan diets and walnuts also provide the essential omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. Obviously, it’s always a good idea to choose unsalted nuts to keep sodium intake from getting too high.

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