During a food shopping trip this week I became acutely aware that the festive season is upon us. In addition to the glut of Christmas puddings and cheese and port ensembles, my local supermarket has seen an influx of nut selections typical at this time of year. Tasty though they are, nuts tend not to enjoy the healthiest of reputations. Packed full of fat and calorie-dense, doctors and dieticians are often quick to warn us that nuts have the capacity to harm the heart and widen the waistline. However, a closer look at the nutritional research reveals that nuts not the dietary demon they are often seen to be. Studies show that eating nuts can have considerable benefits for heart health, and are unlikely to add to any excess baggage we may be carrying. Contrary to popular opinion, the evidence suggests that nuts are one food worth shelling out for whatever the time of year.
Nuts are an intensely fatty food, with about 80 per cent of the calories they offer coming from fat. While this fact might seem somewhat unpalatable at first sight, it should be borne in mind that the types of oils found in nuts such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts and brazil nuts is predominantly of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated types. One potential effect of these beneficial fats is to reduce blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ” the type of cholesterol believed to have artery clogging potential in the body.
Nuts are also rich in fibre and natural plant substances known as sterols, both of which are believed to have cholesterol quelling potential by helping to block its absorption from the gut. Although many people with raised cholesterol levels are warned off eating nuts, the evidence shows that this advice is simply not based in science. Several studies show that including nuts in the diet has the ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels by about 10 per cent ” a reduction that would be expected to confer substantial protection from the nation’s number one killer.
In addition to their ability to reduce cholesterol levels quite naturally, nuts are also rich in nutrients believed to have heart disease protective properties such as vitamin E, magnesium, copper and potassium. It is perhaps no wonder then that five large studies have found that those who include nuts in their diet tend to be at lower the risk of heart disease. One study found that women consuming at least five ounces (about 125 g) of nuts each week had one-third fewer heart attacks compared to women who rarely or never ate nuts. Another study, this time in men, found that individuals eating two or more one-ounce servings of nuts per week were at a 30 per cent lower risk of death due to heart disease compared to men who consumed nuts less often.
For the very best health effects, nuts are probably best taken in their raw (unroasted) and unsalted state. Despite being rammed full of calories, it appears that they are unlikely to inflate our weight: more than one study has found that when nuts are added to the diet, the body generally compensates by eating less of other foods. In stark contrast to their rather unwholesome reputation, the evidence suggests that nuts are a supremely healthy and nutritious food. For those pondering the nut selections in their local supermarket, my advice is to get cracking.