Squirrel with a black walnut

The squirrels have been zealously gathering and hiding nuts for the last few weeks, even going so far as to stash a few in the flower pots on my deck.  Black walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns… a veritable feast to last the winter! Of course this reminds me to stock up, as well.  Nuts were a part of my childhood. Each autumn a large bowl would appear in the middle of the kitchen table filled with all kinds including pecans, walnuts, filberts, and hazelnuts.  After school or after dinner we would sit around the table cracking nuts, the older kids teaching the younger ones how to use the nutcrackers to crack the outer shell but not the nut within. There is something about the satisfying and rhythmic sound of conversation, laughter and nut cracking that a pop-top can of salted peanuts will never replace.

For a while, though, nuts had a bad rap. They were shunned by dieters and health-conscious consumers. Over the last decade as the result of research and better nutritional understanding, nuts are now considered to be a healthy and even diet-friendly snack. Did you know that research suggests that nuts can lower your cholesterol, boost your immune system, improve your vein health and even help with inflammatory conditions like asthma when eaten as part of a balanced diet? The nutrition profile of each type of nut may differ slightly but almost all nuts contain heart-healthy fats and fatty acids, good amino acids, soluble fiber, vitamin E, and other beneficial substances.

Nuts are one of the best sources of omega 3- a heart healthy fatty acid.  Why is that important?  Well, research suggests that we should have a 1:1 dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, but our typical diet has a ratio closer to 15:1!  In a nutshell- we don’t eat enough omega-3 which is found in greens, seeds and nuts and we eat too much omega-6s which are found in poultry, wheat, eggs and the vegetable oils used in processed foods.

Excessive omega-6 consumption can promote heart disease, as well as cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune disease whereas consumption of omega 3’s decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease and helps manage inflammatory conditions including arthritis and even asthma.  Omega-3 fatty acids can also help lower triglycerides and protect against heart arrhythmias or irregular heartbeat.  In addition to omega 3, nuts contain the amino acid, L-arginine. L-arginine may relax blood vessels making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots. Arginine has also been shown to promote wound healing, and boost immune function.

In addition to heart healthy omega-3s and arginine, nuts may aid digestion and have value as an antioxidant. Nuts are an excellent source of soluble fiber which is essential to good gastrointestinal health, helps lower blood cholesterol and reduces glucose levels. Nuts are also an excellent source of Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant essential for DNA repair, healthy skin and good immune function. Research has shown that Vitamin E may fight atherosclerosis or arterial plaque.

So nuts are good for you, relatively inexpensive and easy to store? Don’t hoard your nuts just yet.  Research shows only part of the picture. Sprinkling nuts over your ice cream sundae, eating peanut brittle, or consuming large quantities of salted peanuts during the Orioles game, for example, is not likely to be helpful.  Instead, of adding nuts to your diet, consider substituting them as a healthy snack instead of an unhealthy one. Instead of reaching for a piece of pecan pie reach for a handful of pecans instead.  Remember you are trying to find balance in your diet- and that can be a tough nut to crack. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

For more information about the benefits of nuts and for a chart that lists the nutritional value of specific nuts, check out this article, Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health.

More recent news and research about the value of nuts.


Mary Catherine Cochran works as a Senior Communications Project Manager at Howard County General Hospital: Johns Hopkins Medicine where, among other things, she manages and writes for the Well & Wise blog.



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