Nuts have gotten a bad rap as a high-fat, high-calorie snack, but adding nuts to your diet may actually be good for your heart. Studies have consistently linked nuts to a lower risk of heart disease. The Nurses' Health Study found that those who ate nuts at least five times a week (five or more ounces weekly) had a 35 percent lower risk of heart disease than women who rarely ate nuts. Another study found that men who ate nuts at least twice a week reduced their risk of sudden cardiac death by 47 percent and their risk of death from heart disease by 30 percent.
Research suggests that a moderate-fat diet (35 percent total calories from fat) that includes up to 3.5 ounces of nuts, especially almonds, walnuts, pecans, or peanuts, lowers total cholesterol 2 to 16 percent and LDL cholesterol 2 to 19 percent. The cholesterol-lowing effect is largely attributed to the unsaturated fat found in nuts; however, other components -- such as fiber, vitamin E, the amino acid arginine, and phytonutrients, including plant sterols -- may also have beneficial effects on blood cholesterol.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, eating 1.5 ounces of certain nuts -- including walnuts (which contain omega-3 fatty acids), almonds (which contain calcium), hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, some pine nuts, and peanuts -- as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, and cashews have more saturated fat than other nuts; however, they too have beneficial components. Brazil nuts, for example, are very high in selenium, a powerful antioxidant.
It's important to remember that all nuts are high in fat, even if it's heart-healthy fat, so the calories can add up fast. If you want to add nuts to your diet but don't want to gain weight, eat nuts instead of -- not in addition to -- a snack that's high in sugar, saturated fat, or trans fat.
A good way to lower saturated fat intake is to substitute olive oil in many recipes. See the next page to find out why olive oil is a more heart-healthy alternative to traditional cooking oils.