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I'm nuts about nuts!

You can’t have failed to notice the huge array of nuts which are now available in health shops, snack bars and supermarkets these days. No longer is it just that greasy bowl of peanuts at the end of the bar. Walnuts, brazils, pecans, almonds and cashews are all readily available.

But aren’t nuts really fatty? Dieter’s ruin? High in calories? How can they be both healthy and fattening?

Well the truth is just that! Nuts do contain fat and they are healthy – confused? Let me explain!

Tree nuts, such as almonds, brazils, cashews, hazelnuts, in fact all nuts other than peanuts (which are technically legumes as they grow underground), are a dense source of energy for many animals that pick them from trees to store and eat when food is scarce. Think of those squirrels busy all autumn gathering nuts for the winter. A few nuts keep our furry friends filled up during the cold winter months when nothing much is growing on bushes for them to eat. Those energy dense fat-containing nuts need to be highly nutritious in order for animals to survive on them all winter.

Back to us humans – First of all, let’s clarify one thing: Fat is not bad for you.

In fact, eating the right kind of fat is essential for optimal health. The human brain is made up of 60% fat. If we don’t provide our bodies with the right kind of fat, then we are not going to be 100% happy and healthy. Fats are carriers of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat cushions our vital organs. It also has an essential function in the cell membrane in every single cell in our body.

So what is the right kind of fat? Essential fats are found in nuts, seeds, avocadoes, olive oil and oily fish. They are called essential because we need to get them from our food. Our bodies cannot make them by themselves.

A handful of nuts can give you a huge amount of fibre, essential fats, vitamins and minerals (1). They are filling, so may contribute to maintaining weight loss. There are plenty of nuts to choose from, and each one has its own benefits:

Walnuts (2) - this is the nut with the most antioxidants, which means it can be helpful in the prevention of chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. It has the highest proportion of omega-3 fatty acids (the best kind) of all the tree nuts. It also contains manganese, which can help with premenstrual symptoms, and copper, which may curb tumour growth in cancer patients.

Cashews - these are great if you’re vegetarian, because they contain protein, iron and zinc (also found in meat). Zinc supports your immunity. Cashews also contain magnesium, which is good for brain function and may slow down memory loss.

Chestnuts – Not just for Christmas, chestnuts are bursting with fibre, vitamin C and B vitamins.

Almonds – these contain fibre, protein (nearly 1 gram per almond!), calcium (great for bones), vitamin E (brilliant for healthy skin). Almonds support a healthy heart (3) and may raise levels of good bacteria in your gut. You can also get these benefits by drinking almond milk or spreading almond butter on your toast.

Brazils – Although brazil nuts contain lots of minerals, the one they are most known for is selenium, which is essential for thyroid function. It also supports your immune system helping wounds to heal and it may have a role in cancer prevention. You only need to eat 5 or 6 brazil nuts to get the recommended daily amount of selenium.

Hazelnuts – Not just good in chocolate spread, these great nuts are high in folic acid and vitamin E, which is great for healthy skin. They are also thought to reduce dementia risk.

Macadamias – these are high in fibre, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B1, manganese and potassium. They can help lower cholesterol levels (4).

Pecans – these super nuts contain no less than 19 vitamins and minerals. They can help to lower LDL cholesterol, and because they are rich in antioxidants, they are great for preventing chronic disease.

Pistachios – these nuts contain vitamin B6, which is great for hormone balance, so it could be handy if you’re having menstruation problems. Pistachios are the only nut which contains lutein and zeaxanthin (which are brilliant for eye health). Pistachios also contain potassium and fibre.

The great thing about nuts is their versatility. They are easy to carry around with you, no preparation is necessary and they keep well. They can be added to yogurt, breakfast cereals, stir frys and porridge. They can be sprinkled on salads or desserts.

Nuts should be eaten in moderation, not because they are high in fat or calories, but because they are high in protein. Excess dietary protein can lead to kidney stress and weight gain. An ideal protein intake is ½ gram of protein per lean pound of body weight. So if you weigh 10 stone (140 pounds), you should be eating 70 grams of protein each day.

Raw and unsalted nuts are best. Although a small amount of salt is good for you, it is too easy to get too much with more-ish salty nuts. Roasting can damage nutrients in nuts, decreasing their bioavailability, so raw is best.

1 Ros E. Nuts and CVD. British Journal of Nutrition 2015, 113, pp S111-S120.

2 Hayes D, Angove MJ, Tucci J, Dennis C. Walnuts (Juglans regia) Chemical Composition and Research in Human Health. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition. 2015 Jan 1(just-accepted):00-.

3 Gilani AH, Jamshed H, Tipoo Sultan FA, Iqbal R. Almonds improve HDL in coronary artery disease patients. Journal of the American Society of Hypertension. 2015 Jan 4;9(4):e59.

4 Stewart M. Macadamia Nuts and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors: A Review of Clinical Trials. The FASEB Journal. 2015 Apr 1;29(1 Supplement):923-6.

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