Once considered to be a high-calorie snack meant only for treats, nuts have made a comeback in the world of nutrition, touted for their high levels of cancer-fighting phytochemicals, heart-healthy fats and a number of minerals. And while they are definitely dense in calories and better enjoyed in small portions, "nuts have not proven to be fattening," says Vesanto Melina, a registered dietician and coauthor of nutrition handbooks Becoming Vegetarian and the Food Allergy Survival Guide. In fact, she adds, "they seem to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease." Studies have also shown that regular consumption of nuts lowers cholesterol levels.
Nuts are high in antioxidants, which fight free radicals in the body, as well as in plant protein (especially important for vegetarians and vegans) and fibre.To ensure getting the greatest range of phytochemicals, fats and minerals, it's best to eat a variety of nuts. "Almonds have calcium, cashews have zinc and walnuts have omega-3 fatty acids," says Melina, adding that roasting nuts makes their iron more available for the body.
Allergies to tree nuts (including walnuts, almonds and cashews) and to peanuts (which are technically not a nut) can be life-threatening, which is why many schools have banned them from their premises. Peanut and tree nut allergies are separate; while you may be sensitive to both, you could just have an allergy to one or the other, or even just to one or two tree nuts.
Symptoms of a minor nut allergy include an itchy mouth, tightness in the throat, asthma and intestinal discomfort; people with more severe allergies can go into anaphylactic shock through contact with the allergen. If you suspect you have a nut allergy, it's a good idea to discuss it with your doctor or an allergist. Also be careful when introducing infants to solid foods -- it's recommended that babies at risk of developing allergies not be given nuts until three years of age.
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If you can't eat nuts due to allergies, try to include in your diet foods with similar nutritional profiles. If you can, eat peanuts instead of tree nuts or vice versa; if you're sensitive to all nuts, consider sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. If you cannot eat any of these foods, make sure to include other sources of healthy fats, such as olives, avocados and any allowable vegetable oils. Legumes such as soy beans and other beans also offer a range of phytochemicals, plant protein and other nutrients.
A handful a day
"Nuts get a bad rap because people think sitting and eating peanuts is really fattening," says Melina, "but you should shift your perspective and eat nuts as part of your regular meal." Try sprinkling pecans and pistachios on a salad, garnishing a pasta dish with pine nuts and hazelnuts, adding peanuts and cashews to a stir-fry or stirring almonds and walnuts into your breakfast cereal. Also make use of nut butters -- ideally, those with no sugar, oils or other fillers added.
Nuts make an excellent snack, too. Not only are they healthier than the chips or candy bar you may be inclined to grab when midafternoon hunger pangs strike, but they give you staying power, as well -- and no sugar crash. Melina recommends making a homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and unsweetened dried fruit and keeping some in your purse, car or office drawer. Making your own blend has two benefits: you can choose your favourite ingredients, and you'll avoid the hydrogenated oils, sugars and other extras added to many commercial mixes.
The nutty truth
Include nuts in your meals daily to lower your cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease, and you may just notice a difference in your energy levels as well. What's the downside? "In the different studies that have been done," says Melina, "nuts have not proven to have negative effects." So what are you waiting for? Go nuts!
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