As nutty as it may sound, eating a handful of walnuts, pecans or pistachios every day could help ward off an expanding waistline. It could also boost your heart health and lower your risk of several diseases, according to two 2012 studies. Not too shabby, right?
The first study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, looked at 13,292 men and women and compared their weight and risk factors for certain diseases. What the researchers found was that those who ate at least one-quarter ounce a day of tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts) had a lower body weight, as well as a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, compared to non-nut-eaters.
What's more, the researchers also noted that regular tree nut eaters had higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation, which is linked to a number of chronic diseases including heart disease.
And the health benefits didn't stop there. Eating tree nuts was also found to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes while lowering the prevalence of abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels.
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Can these nuts really do all that? Yes, according to YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., who says that nuts have specific qualities that make them so darn good for our bodies.
"What we're really looking at is the fact that nuts have healthy fats, very low carbs-which means no increase in blood sugar-and high fiber content," says Kirkpatrick. "They also have healthy fats that help increase our satiation, meaning we feel full longer so we're not going to be tempted to grab some candy an hour later like we would after eating a donut."
A second study, published in Nutrition Research, confirmed the health benefits of nuts for both adults and children. Specifically, this study looked at more 24,000 people and found a positive correlation between nut consumption and a 19 percent decreased risk of hypertension and a 21 percent decreased risk of low HDL (the good cholesterol). Nut eaters also tended to have healthier diets with higher intakes of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the good fats) and dietary fiber, as well as lower intakes of carbohydrates, cholesterol and sodium compared to those who didn't munch on nuts.
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What's more, the research found that even though people who ate nuts out of hand consumed more calories overall, they weighed less and had lower BMIs.
So does this mean we have to turn into chipmunks, stuffing ourselves with nuts all day in order to reap these heart-and waist-friendly benefits? Not so, says Kirkpatrick. "If you eat just one to two ounces a day-the equivalent of one to two handfuls-you can benefit," she says.
To watch your portions sizes when eating a handful of nuts, opt for the shelled variety. "If you get nuts that are in the shell, it's so much easier to portion control them," advises Kirkpatrick. "If you're at a party and there is a bowl of cashews or other unshelled nuts, you can easily put your hand in there and down a lot of them. But when you have to work for your food, you won't eat as many."
If you get bored eating nuts by themselves, try cooking with them. Kirkpatrick suggests making stir-fry with walnuts or a pecan pesto. You can also grind them into a nut butter or get them in a dark chocolate bar. When in doubt, toss some into your yogurt, oatmeal or salads.
- by Deborah Dunham