Nuts For Your Health

Recently my wife Zoe and I stopped into a place called Buck Nuts in Saco, Maine, which is close to where we spend vacation time and weekends in the summer. The sign on the outside of the store confused me a bit and I wondered if perhaps everything in there cost a dollar. It didn't. But what we discovered was an extensive selection of nut mixes of all types, from sweet to salty to spicy. I was impressed to find such a place in little Saco. Apparently Buck Nuts ships various mixes to stores, bars and restaurants all over the U.S., thereby helping many people to eat healthier snacks. It's a good mission. Sitting in the little store and munching on some spicy nut mix got me thinking about the types of snacks people eat, and that made me think to write a column on the health benefits of nuts.

Nuts have been part of the human diet for all of recorded time, and probably before that. Rich in protein and essential fats, nuts have played heavily in the traditions of many cultures. In the U.S., Native Americans used to eat a broad range of nuts, from acorns to chestnuts, as part of their natural diet. Eating nuts as part of a healthy diet is a wise idea. And a lot of science has emerged over the last few years, showing that in particular, nuts are beneficial for the heart. That is welcome news. Virtually all nuts are healthy for you, but walnuts almonds and hazel nuts especially appear at the top of the healthy nut list. Briefly, here's what's so good about nuts.

Health Benefits of Nuts

Nuts contain both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which help to control LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol. Nuts also contain Omega 3 fatty acids. And while the very best source of Omega 3's is fish, nuts are also a good source. The Omega 3's protect the heart by modifying heart rhythm, thus decreasing the chances of heart attack.

Fiber is essential to a healthy diet, and nuts are a source of dietary fiber. Did you know that fiber can only be found in plant foods? There is no fiber in meats, fish, or dairy products. Only plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts contain fiber. Fiber helps to maintain proper digestive health, and that is essential to overall wellness.

One of the richest sources of vitamin E, nuts contain this essential antioxidant nutrient. Vitamin E helps to prevent oxidation of fats in the blood. By preventing oxidation of blood fats, vitamin E helps to prevent cardiovascular disease including heart attack and stroke.

Nuts also are a good source of plant sterols. These are hormone-like substances that naturally occur in various plants. Sterols can help to lower cholesterol and therefore lower the risk of heart disease.

Nuts also contain the amino acid L-arginine. This natural component of protein helps to make the walls of arteries more flexible, and reduces the risk of dangerous blood clots.

A recent study at Penn State University shows that walnuts specifically contribute to lower blood pressure, and can help to reduce stress. So including walnuts in your diet is a smart heart-healthy step.

Recently we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of obese people in the U.S., and this means that we are also experiencing a significant rise in rates of type 2 diabetes, so-called adult-onset diabetes. Consumption of high carbohydrate foods, excessive sugar, lack of nutrients and poor exercise all contribute to type 2 diabetes. Nuts can actually help to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, by helping to stabilize blood sugar. Because nuts are naturally high in fats, you don't want to sit and eat them by the pound. But a handful of nuts with a meal, or a handful of nuts as a snack in place of something less nutritious, can help to stabilize blood sugar, satisfy your craving for something to eat, and provide sustained energy. Nuts digest more slowly than carbohydrates, giving you more energy to draw upon for a longer period of time.

You will find nuts in many different forms- raw, roasted, unsalted and salted, as well as sweetened and spicy. If you are on a sodium-restricted diet, stay away from salted nuts, or eat only a small amount. Otherwise, eat nuts instead of candies, chips and other high calorie, low-nutrient snacks. Nuts are satisfying, and they also will provide significant health benefits.

Where to Get Nuts

If you live near a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods, you will find in either an impressive array of nuts, including certified organic nuts. You can find nuts at any good supermarket as well. I was very impressed by Buck Nuts, and they deliver anywhere, so you can also check out their web site www.mainebucknuts.com.

By the way, the two photos in this article are from a very recent trip to Morocco. I captured these nut displays in the old markets in Marrakech. Happy snacking!

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com