Going Nuts for Mediterranean Snacks

April 23, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

As a life-long weight manager I’ve always been very careful with nuts; years in the past I would almost avoid them, knowing that the calories are high – one ounce is about 170 or 180 calories. But I also had the nutritionist in me pulling me toward them for their nutrient density – they’re loaded with healthy nutrients. All right, I should also admit that I love the flavor and crunch. But the fact that they’re loaded with fat is a little scary. Think peanut oil, walnut oil, almond butter, cashew butter, and peanut butter. I knew of course that it was not the really bad kind of fat, but the calories in fat are more than double the calories of carbohydrates and protein per gram (9:4:4/g). So the bright yellow-orange caution sign is blinking.

Traditionally, dietary patterns recommended for health, particularly heart health, have been low-fat, high complex carbohydrate diets, which generally are not particularly delicious. Some studies have shown that a non–energy-restricted traditional Mediterranean diet enriched with nuts, makes meals high in fat, high in unsaturated fat and very appetizing. Nuts added to a Mediterranean-style meal offers a useful tool in managing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. This is hopeful information. There seems to be considerable evidence that we should include nuts with our Mediterranean-style eating, and reap the benefits of the enjoyment of an appetizing, satisfying diet and heart health.

Creative researchers have produced some interesting research on eating nuts. When people were given 500 calories worth of peanuts (3 ounces) every day for two months, they gained only two pounds, instead of the eight pounds you’d expect. I haven’t heard if they every figured out why; three possible ideas may be: (1) they ate less later; (2) the calories from nuts may not be fully absorbed, or (3) the fiber and fat makes people feel fuller longer and suppresses appetite.

Nuts are one of the foods included in a healthy Mediterranean-style eating plan. Nuts are high in fat (approximately 80 percent of their calories come from fat), but tree nuts, including walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazel nuts, are low in saturated fat. Nuts are high in calories, so they should not be eaten in large amounts — generally think of them as something sprinkled on another food or served as a controlled portion of 2 – 3 tablespoons a day.

Nuts are an especially nice snack for persons with diabetes or pre-diabetes because they don’t add to the carbohydrate load; they easily damper appetite; they don’t have any saturated fat or trans fat. Dr. Grandpa snacks on small portions daily, and has carefully documented his controlled blood sugar levels, while staying off any diabetes drugs for almost 6 years.

I keep promising myself not to rattle off a list of nutrients in any certain food, in the hope that you will get excited about including the food in your diet because of its yumminess/general evidence of healthiness. This ‘promise to self’ is being tested today, as I’m writing about nuts – Oh my goodness! ….  minerals, good fats, vitamins, fiber, protein. OK! I’m still working on that goal, but at least I didn’t name all the vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.

Even the FDA has acknowledged a benefit from nuts and allows a health claim for nuts, which states: “1.5 ounces per day of most nuts may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

Portion control is really an important issue as related to nuts. They’re terrific and healthy, but having a jar right next to your hand could result in an oversized snack half-cup (357 – 400 calories) or a cup (750 – 800 calories) before you realize what happened. So I suggest that you make a personal rule to put the nuts into an individual container/dish to help stay within your calorie limits – dish up the amount you intend to consume. Dr. Grandpa (Vic) and I have small cups next to the nut container; that way we decrease that chance of unconscious eating too many. Brian Wansink has done considerable research and written about it in his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, to help the reader understand how easy it is to eat more than we ever imagined. He chronicles experiments with popcorn and another with a soup bowl that refilled itself from under the table – fun and funny stuff, but you can certainly learn that we really don’t do a very good job of knowing how much we eat – especially when we’re distracted! Be real careful with TV watching while tempted by a nearby can or jar of nuts.

Nutty Suggestions:

  • Check the label to see how much salt is included. See A Pinch of Salt Can Do the Job, posted March 1, 2010.
  • Little dish – weigh ounce (or whatever portion you want to eat) carefully look at how much that is in your little dish; then use that dish to help you control the portion each time you want nuts.
  • Although peanuts are technically legumes (beans) we treat them like tree nuts because they have a comparable amount of fat and calories. Peanut butter is a great low cost meat replacement. I suggest the natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. If you stir it and keep it in the refrigerator, it won’t need to be stirred too frequently.
  • If you’re away from home where your little nut cups are stored, try Emerald or Blue Diamond's 100-calorie packs (they contain 2/3 ounce).
  • Don’t worry about whether your nut snack is dry-roasted or oil-roasted. Nuts are so high in fat that it doesn’t really matter enough to worry about.
  • Make little snack-sized packets with those small zip locks – you control the size, and are not tempted to keep eating right out of the jar or can.
  • Try sprinkling and stirring in nuts into Greek Yogurt with a touch of Delight to sweeten it.
  • Toasting nuts is easy. I find it easiest just to put them in a non-stick skillet and swirl them every minute or so. I sometimes do it in the oven, if the oven’s already heated up. Otherwise toast them in a skillet on the stovetop. Unlike the oven, you don’t need to keep opening it to check– Your nutty goodies are turning just the right shade of toastiness and aroma right in front of you.
  • When I compare a handful of nuts with some of the common snacks of today I’ll pick nuts (no empty calories from sugar and white flour, as in crackers and cookies; no hydrogenated fats, including bad-bad trans fats from potato chips and their cousins; no sugar, high fructose corn syrup or the like from candy bars and energy bars, not to mention the saturated and trans fat again.

This Peachy Muffins with Chopped Almonds recipe is really Mediterranean through and through – whole grains, nuts, fruit, no sugar, and extra virgin olive oil.