The Case for Nuts

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2008

Not too many years ago the medical community was reluctant to include nuts in the diet because of their high fat content. After several studies showed that persons who ate nuts on a regular basis were healthier than those who did not, their reluctance turned into enthusiasm. If they had been more aware of hunter-gatherer diets — and presumably, Stone Age eating habits — their acceptance of nuts as healthy foods wouldn't have taken so long.

Ounce for ounce, nuts are one of our most nutritious food groups. They are an ideal travel food, a fact that was probably not lost on our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago. The fat, protein and fiber in nuts help to satisfy hunger longer than snacks such as candy or most baked goods do. Think about that the next time you plan a long car trip with the kids.

Persons with a family history of gallbladder disease, especially if they are overweight, should consider adding nuts to their diet on a daily basis. Men with a high intake of nuts are less prone to develop gallstones and women are less likely to have their gallbladder removed.

Most of the fat in nuts is unsaturated and does not contribute to heart disease. The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are similar to those found in olive oil and cold water fish, respectively, and they are associated with a low risk of sudden cardiac death. They also lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, they raise HDL (good) cholesterol and they lower blood pressure. Nuts are high in arginine and magnesium, both of which contribute to heart health.

A handful of nuts every day might keep cancer at bay. Squalene and selenium, nutrients that are also found in olive oil, have cancer-preventive properties. A European study that involved nearly a half-million women showed that those with a high intake of nuts were less likely to develop colon cancer.

Nuts are a great addition to the diet because of what they do not have: trans fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium (if unsalted). Although they are fairly high in calories because of their fat content they do not appear to contribute to weight gain. Perhaps that's because of their appetite-satisfying quality. Even so, keep in mind that 1 ½ ounces of most nuts (the recommended daily intake) will provide you with roughly 250 calories.

That's about 33 almonds or 19 walnut halves. I suggest that you count how many of each consists of a handful for you. For most persons, two handfuls will represent 1 ½ ounces.

Are all nuts the same? The answer is No, but you can't go wrong with any of them. Even peanuts, which are legumes, not nuts, have similar nutritional value.

Any kind of nut makes a great snack, the kind that you can keep on your coffee table, at your desk, in the glove compartment, or in the kids' school backpack. It's easy to add them to various foods as well because most supermarkets have already sliced or chopped them for you. Place a bowl on the dining table with sliced almonds or chopped walnuts so that everyone can add as much as they like to cereals, salads or desserts.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.