Go NUTS This Season

by Debra Kirchhof-Glazier

Member, Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association


“Going nuts”, especially during the holiday season, is something most of us try to avoid.  However, recent research is giving us reasons to think outside the box- and into the jar!

A study was done at Loma Linda University in 1992 on 31,000 Seventh Day Adventists, a religious group that follows a primarily vegetarian diet and a healthy lifestyle that excludes alcohol and tobacco.  Results showed that those who ate nuts more than four times a week decreased their risk of dying from heart attacks by 50%, compared to those who ate nuts less than once a week.

These intriguing results spurred over 24 additional studies since 1993, using subjects more representative of our culture.  Nuts, nut oils, and nut butters have consistently been found to lower LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the “bad” kind that transports cholesterol to the tissues and which, at high levels, is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The cardiovascular benefits of nuts have been confirmed in every group examined; men and women, blacks and whites, and all age groups of adults.

The fat composition of nuts is a major key to their health benefits.  Nuts are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids and contain naturally occurring chemicals known as plant sterols, all of which help lower LDL levels.  In addition, nuts contain significant amounts of magnesium, copper, and vitamin E.  Magnesium is important in heart health and, along with copper, helps regulate the blood pressure.  Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that helps protect the blood vessels from atherosclerosis.  Nuts also contain amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, in the right proportion, with a high ratio of arginine to lysine for lowering serum cholesterol levels.

The list of healthy nuts includes almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, and peanuts (although, technically, peanuts are legumes, related to peas and beans).   Researchers have not tested the benefits of one nut against another, but it is known that walnuts have one of the highest polyunsaturated fat contents, which may give them an edge in lowering cholesterol levels.

Health benefits were seen after eating as little as one ounce of nuts per day, either raw or roasted.  The number of nuts in one ounce varies with the size of the nut and translates into the following equivalencies:  6-8 Brazil nuts, 8-11 walnut halves, 10-12 macadamias, 16-18 cashews, 18-20 pecan halves, 18-20 hazelnuts, 20-24 almonds, 26-28 peanuts, or150-157 pine nuts.

There are some cautions about eating nuts for one’s health.  The first one is “do not overdo”!  Nuts are high in calories.  One ounce of most nuts provides about 170-180 calories and it is very easy to eat half a jar before realizing it.  Added weight can offset the cardiovascular benefits from the healthy fats.

Another caveat is that many nuts are highly salted, which could be a problem for those trying to control blood pressure.  Look for lightly salted or unsalted varieties.

In addition, the high fat content of nuts makes them prone to rancidity, which is enhanced by heat, light, and humidity.  In general, avoid eating any nuts that taste “funny” or are oily, soft, or dark.  To minimize rancidity, store nuts in a cool, dry place.  Raw, unshelled nuts will keep up to six months under these conditions.  Shelled nuts will keep up to three or four months at room temperature in a dry place in their original container or when transferred to plastic bags.  For longer storage put nuts in the freezer.  They will remain fresh up to a year in the freezer and, if properly wrapped, will maintain their texture and flavor.  Before eating frozen nuts, thaw them to room temperature and then briefly toast them in the oven to ensure highest quality.

Finally, nuts can be highly contaminated with aflatoxins, a category of cancer-causing agents produced by the molds Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus that grow on a variety of food products.  It is difficult to avoid aflatoxins completely, but one way to minimize this health hazard is to buy only major brands of nuts and nut butters, discard any nuts that look moldy, discolored, or shriveled, and/or seek out organic suppliers, such as Maranatha or Walnut Acres, that certify minimal levels of aflatoxin..

In summary, what should we do?  The key is to eat nuts on a regular basis but to incorporate moderation and awareness.  Buy lightly salted or unsalted varieties from reputable companies that ensure minimal contamination, eat them promptly or keep them in the freezer to decrease the possibility of rancidity, and be mindful of the amount you consume.  If you do this, you will experience the positive side of “going nuts” and reap real benefits in 2006!

The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association makes no medical claims or recommendations.  Check with your doctor about your specific health care needs.  For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association contact Jennifer Champion, president, at 814-667-2097 or