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Four major population studies have linked frequent consumption of nuts with 30 to 50 percent lower risk of heart disease.
updated 9/3/2004 8:42:46 AM ET 2004-09-03T12:42:46

Finding a healthy, quick snack these days beyond the packaged nutrition bar may seem impossible, but don't forget about nuts. There are plenty of varieties out there and each are packed with different benefits. But just how healthy are they? And what about all those calories? Nutrition Notes columnist Karen Collins answers these questions and more.

Q: Why are nuts now considered so healthy?
A: Four major population studies have linked frequent consumption of nuts with 30 to 50 percent lower risk of heart disease. While at one time the high fat content of nuts seemed to pose a health risk, we now know that the types of fat they contain do not raise heart or cancer risk. Because the high fat content makes nuts concentrated in calories, people trying to lose weight often consider them “off limits.”

Although it’s true that mindlessly munching through a whole can or bowl of nuts can cause serious calorie trouble, studies suggest that even dieters should eat them. Small amounts may actually help weight loss efforts by satisfying hunger longer than snacking on refined carbohydrates like pretzels or cookies.

Finally, part of nuts’ new health image comes from the growing discovery of the variety of natural phytochemicals nuts contain that may protect against cancer and heart disease.

Q: I know nuts are nutritious, but how can I keep from gaining weight if I eat them regularly?
A: You’re right. Nuts are packed with nutrients. Just one ounce supplies two or three grams of fiber and four to seven grams of protein, similar to one-half to one slice of cheese, but with about two-thirds less saturated fat. Some nuts, like almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts, are a good source of vitamin E, while walnuts are a good source of health-promoting omega-3 fat.

Unfortunately, all these benefits come along with 160 to 190 calories in a single ounce. Be smart with nuts: keep portions small and choose nuts as a substitute for some other food. A one-ounce portion is about a quarter-cup. That’s a scant handful for the average adult – the size of a golf ball. If you eat this portion of nuts instead of three or four cookies or a candy bar, you’ll actually save calories.

Q: How do the special nut and seed oils I see in gourmet shops rate nutritionally?
A: All oils contain 120 calories and 13.6 grams of fat per tablespoon. One of the main differences between oils lies in the types of fat they contain. Cholesterol-raising saturated fat tends to be low (1 or 2 grams per tablespoon) in all the nut oils. Macadamia oil is almost completely monounsaturated fat, and sweet almond oil is mostly monounsaturated, too. Sesame seed oil is a mixture of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils. Walnut oil is high in polyunsaturated fat, some of which is omega-3 fat (like that in salmon and fatty fish).

Overall, when used in limited amounts to avoid excess calories, these oils can add interesting flavor to a healthful plant-based diet. Some – such as grapeseed and sesame oils – can be used in stir-frying or other cooking. Others smoke at high temperatures and are meant to be used only in salad dressings, for dipping or to sprinkle on veggies after cooking. Because they are expensive, it’s good that all you need is just a little for flavor.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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