Beyond Snacks: Welcoming Nuts into Your Meals

April 7, 2015 in Diabetes Management, fiber, Health, Health Claims, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Every time I write the goals to improve diet, it always includes incorporating nuts. It’s pretty easy to quickly skim over the information that researchers have found that nuts are associated with improved health (especially cardiovascular, diabetes and metabolic syndrome) and not really take the next step to adding nuts to your regular eating habits. I’m wondering if some of us look at nuts as only a snack, when they can be used in all kinds of meals as well.

Just a reminder of how beneficial they are: Nuts seem to impact multiple mechanisms that affect health. It’s a pleasant surprise that nuts pose a limited threat to weight gain. An additional benefit is that energy absorption from nuts is less than predicted. And as related to the calories in nuts, there is evidence that nuts are associated with elevated resting energy expenditure; in essence, you get a benefit of burning some extra calories while resting. And yet another really nice benefit of eating nuts; they satisfy your hunger and may actually lead to less eating at a later meal.

Why consider including nuts in your meal planning?

One of the nice things about nuts is that they are an exceptional food; packed with healthy fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in a small serving. The FDA has even made a statement about nuts: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” (US FDA, 2014) While reading the points below, you may notice that there are many mechanisms that lead to the positive association of nuts with cardiovascular and diabetic health.

  • Fats – They are low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. So if you want the item that you’re eating to hang in there, like fat does, then it’s nice if the fatty acids are primarily heart healthy mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Nuts serve up fats for you in a healthy form.
  • Protein – nuts are a good sourced of plant protein. One of the benefits of protein from nuts is that they are generally high in L-arginine, an amino acid that is converted to nitric oxide in the body. The nitric oxide helps keep the blood vessels elastic and that reduces the risk of atherosclerosis. (Certainly, like many types of whole foods, several factors together contribute to the entire effect. I’m not trying to encourage you to not run out and buy a bottle of L-arginine. Instead, evidence suggests that the many components of the nut (fats, protein, fiber, sterols, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients work together to keep your blood glucose, blood pressure and cardiovascular risk in a healthy range.)
  • Fiber – you get about 5 – 10% of the Daily Value (DV) for fiber in approximately 3 ounces of nuts; it’s mostly insoluble fiber. Of course, fiber has been shown for a long time to lower the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular heart disease.
  • Plant sterols and stanols found in nuts resemble the chemical structure of cholesterol and lower blood cholesterol by blocking its absorption by competing with cholesterol in the gut.
  • Phytochemicals – There are many bioactive compounds in plants, which possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Much has been written about antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Maybe we’ll just add a potential decreased risk of cancer to our list of benefits of eating nuts.
  • Since nuts are perfect snacks that won’t quickly bump you blood sugar up, that makes them good for glucose control. Even if you do not have diabetes, it’s nice to have a snack that will satisfy, without a rebound plummet of blood sugar and energy.
  • If you’re thinking that you need ‘gluten-free, you’re set, as nuts don’t have gluten.

Hints for increasing nut consumption:

  • Buy them in large containers. The price is usually better. The trick is to freeze them, so they’ll stay nice and fresh. Peanuts and macadamias are especially susceptible to becoming rancid if stored at room temperature for too long.
  • Consider portioning out the servings in small plastic bags; then keeping the bags in a larger bag or container in the freezer. When you’re packing lunches or snacks, all you have to do is grab one out of the freezer – you’re on your way.
  • If you want to make plain foods taste better, consider adding nuts. I’ve probably mentioned in prior blogs that we add sliced almonds to our oatmeal or shredded wheat breakfasts. We like nuts on both regular foods and desserts.
  • A nice dessert is sweetened non-fat yogurt, topped with a little fresh blended strawberries and sprinkled with toasted chopped nuts.
  • Add nuts to salads; we frequently use pine nuts, but other nuts are nice too.
  • Nut butter sandwiches are not a new idea, but they are a comfort food for many of us.
  • Quick breads and muffins are another traditional way that nuts are added to the diet.
  • We also enjoy nut-crusted fish; nuts make fish extra special.
  • And lastly, some people enjoy nuts in their smoothies.
  • Don’t let these few ideas be the end of your creative nut ideas; keep going till you incorporate them into your regular habits.

One of the facts about nuts, which makes life easier for me is they are easy to prepare. Let’s face it, many of the foods that are so good for us, take lots of preparation. But with nuts, you can grab a handful and eat; or put a handful in a small plastic bag; then in your case or purse. When you have a snack attack, you’re prepared. You not only get the wonderful nutrients and benefits of the nuts, but you protect yourself from the secretary’s candy dish; the workroom donuts; or the convenience store’s junk food. I should mention that I’ve purchased nuts, numerous times from convenience stores; so if you end up at the gas station and want to grab something fast – think nuts.

Now if you think that including nuts in your diet is a good idea, it’s time to take a step. The first step in adding something to your diet is getting it in your near proximity. That’s a fairly easy first step. Once it’s in the freezer, you can begin to think of all kinds of ways to use them.