Nuts: A Heart-Healthy Snack

Nuts have been getting a lot of attention lately and, to many people’s surprise, the buzz is good. Nuts are now considered a health food.

Once regarded as a guilty indulgence due to their high caloric density—one ounce of nuts has 160 to 200 calories, nearly 80 percent of which are from fat—nuts are now considered perhaps the ideal heart-smart snack.

Why the change of heart?

Nutswhy the bad rap?

Nuts are loaded with fat and, as we’ve discussed before, fat has traditionally been considered to be the cause of heart disease. We have learned, however, that not all fats are created equal and in fact some oils are actually good for us.

Nuts are nutrient-dense foods made primarily of unsaturated fatty acids, a healthier kind of fat. Many nuts contain less saturated fat (and of course no trans fat) compared to most high-fat foods. Most importantly, nuts are loaded with additional fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive substances.

Two cups of mixed nuts usually contains around 1,600 calories, so there is certainly no license here to overeat. Foods that are rich in fats are always rich in calories. However, there is no hiding the overwhelming evidence that eating nuts can lower cholesterol, lower blood fats, decrease heart disease, and perhaps lead to longer overall survival.

The new nuts study

In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which examined about 120,000 men and women, researchers found that individuals who consumed nuts seven or more times per week had a 20 percent lower risk of dying compared to those who did not eat nuts. Remarkably, the study also showed that even limited nut consumption (less than once a week) still provided an 11-percent reduction in death. Nut consumption also appeared to reduce the risk of heart disease, respiratory disease, and cancer.

This study, which followed the participants’ diets throughout its course, was very impressive. Diets were scrupulously compared between individuals who were dead and alive at the end of the study.

While this study is the most recent and highly regarded article in the field, it is far from the only one in the past decade that reflects well on nuts. Nutrition scientists have repeatedly studied the beneficial effects of nuts, and there is a growing consensus about their benefits. It turns out that many nutrients contained in nuts have been linked to significant antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging properties that likely contribute to the health benefits:

  • The monounsaturated fats in nuts help support increased levels of good HDL cholesterol and do not raise levels of harmful LDL cholesterol.
  • Nuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, substances that help lower triglycerides and blood pressure.
  • Nuts contain dietary fiber, which can lower blood sugar (and thus type 2 diabetes) and boost digestive health.
  • The fat, fiber, and protein in nuts all work to induce satiety (the feeling of being full), causing prudent nut consumers to actually gain less weight than those who never eat nuts!

Nutsperhaps the best snack food

I am the first to admit that throughout the course of a busy day, nearly everyone needs a snack—and yet this is where so many of my patients fall off the wagon. Most of the time, snack foods are just empty calories.

If you find snacks necessary, I recommend incorporating nuts into your diet as a snack food a few times a week. The best nuts? Probably almonds and walnuts. You can try adding them to a simple salad or eating them along with a piece of fruit. Nuts are an important part of the Mediterranean Diet

We doctors spend too much time telling patients to quit eating this or stop eating that. Here is an opportunity to add back small portions of a food you love that has been proven to help improve your health!

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