Are Nuts Healthy?

Nuts are the Dirty Harry of health food. Like Clint Eastwood’s iconic movie cop, nuts break all the rules with their high fat and calorie content, but are ultimately a force for good, especially when it comes to heart health.

New research from Harvard University suggests that eating just a few servings of nuts per week could significantly reduce your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Walnuts and peanuts are particularly heart-friendly, say the scientists. (But not peanut butter. More on that later.)

The Harvard team found that compared to people who rarely or never chomp on nuts, those who ate an ounce of nuts five or more times per week had a 14 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease (stroke or heart attack), and a 20 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease (a fatal or nonfatal heart attack) during the study period.

Study participants who ate one or more servings of walnuts per week had a 19 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a 21 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, and a 17 percent lower risk of stroke. Participants who ate two or more servings of peanuts per week had somewhat lower reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease—13 and 10 percent, respectively.

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The results of the Harvard study, one of the largest on nuts’ benefits, support a significant body of earlier research that suggests we should be downing about seven 1-ounce servings of nuts per week.

Nuts pack a lot of health benefits into their tiny shells. They’re rich in nutrients and the types of unsaturated fats that are believed to protect the heart. Other benefits include fiber, protein, calcium, and lots of complex carbs. The polyphenols and phytosterols contained in some nuts provide antioxidants and cholesterol-lowering power.

Walnuts may be especially good for your heart because they’re a rich source of alpha-linolenic acids, a type of omega-3 fatty acid thought to protect against heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Walnuts are often eaten raw, which keeps their antioxidant-laden skin intact.

Here’s a tidbit to sock away for Trivial Pursuit: Peanuts are legumes, not nuts. But they pack the same nutritional wallop as true nuts. Except when they are ground up. The Harvard study found no heart health benefit from eating peanut butter. One possible explanation is that peanut butter is often made with or consumed in tandem with lots of sugar and salt.

Nutrition experts suggest that you mix up your nut consumption, as the various varieties offer different benefits.  And don’t go crazy, no double-fisting the almonds or peanuts. Remember, they do have a fat and caloric downside. A little Dirty Harry goes a long way.

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