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Oh nuts! Add almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts to your healthy diet.

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Tossing back a handful of nuts may seem trivial. However, in this simple act you’re doing yourself one huge health favor. Nuts are one of the most nut-ritious foods in the world. That’s the conclusion of a study published in the March 2012 issue of Nutrition Research, which found adults who ate a quarter of a cup of nuts or more daily had a 19-percent lowered risk of high blood pressure and 21-percent lowered risk of elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. What’s more, a year ago these same researchers found that eating a quarter of a cup of nuts daily provided significantly more of much-needed nutrients such as vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium and dietary fiber and less of less-needed nutrients like sodium. If you need even more reasons to toss back a handful of nuts each day, read on:

Mankind has munched on nuts for nearly a million years. Botanically, nuts are defined as dried fruit with one seed and narrowly include a handful of inedible varieties such as hickory, beech and oak. Yet, culinary-wise, there is a larger list that includes almonds, cashews and walnuts. In general, nuts provide essential fatty acids, vitamin E, riboflavin, protein, folate, dietary fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, potassium and selenium. Beyond this, individual nuts offer specific health benefits.

For example, according to an article published by researchers at Tufts University in Boston in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, almonds provide more than just a cholesterol-lowering effect. While it is this nut’s favorable fat and fiber composition that lowers cholesterol, the vitamin and mineral content also make them helpful in the treatment of risk factors for diabetes and other degenerative diseases such as elevated blood sugar levels and increased body weight. Speaking of obesity, a study printed in August 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that eating almonds as part of a low-calorie weight-loss diet resulted in not only fewer pounds, but also a healthier composition of blood fats and thus reduced risk for heart disease.

Cashew nuts, which are the kidney-shaped seeds at the bottom of the cashew apple, may be a crucial component to preventing diabetes according to researchers in Canada and Cameroon. These scientists, whose work appeared in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, discovered that there are naturally-occurring compounds in cashew nuts that cause muscle cells to absorb blood sugar and thus lower sugar levels in the bloodstream.

Pecans are a nut that are rich in one form of vitamin E called gamma-tocopherol. This antioxidant substance is especially potent when it comes to heart health. Researchers at Loma Linda University, in California, who published their work in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Nutrition, found that when subjects ate pecans, the amount of gamma-tocopherol substantially increased in their blood. In addition, in an earlier study, these same scientists found that eating pecans daily lowered levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol more effectively than following the American Heart Association’s step 1 diet, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy, but without a specific recommended intake of nuts.

Ironically, many people worry about eating nuts because nuts are high in calories. Most nuts provide between 130 and 160 calories per serving. There are two key steps to adding nuts healthfully to the diet. First, watch out for serving size. A portion of nuts is a handful or about one ounce. Many folks think nothing of eating through a can of nuts while watching TV. A 12-ounce jar of nuts can easily provide your entire day’s calorie requirements. Limit portion size by measuring out nuts in a shot glass rather than eating directly from the jar, or using nuts as a topping for salads and pasta rather than eating by themselves. Secondly, substitute nuts for other high-fat foods in the diet. For example, nibble on nuts in place of potato chips.

The biggest downside of nuts is that some people are extremely allergic. If you’re not allergic, then do your heart and body a favor by eating a handful of nuts daily.

Carol Bareuther is a freelance writer in St. Thomas. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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