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home : columns : dr. k May 24, 2016

   
2/8/2014 11:45:00 AM
It's nuts to avoid nuts because of worries about fats

DEAR DOCTOR K: I love to snack on nuts, but they're high in fat. Do I need to give them up?

DEAR READER: You most certainly do not need to give up your beloved snack. They are a very healthy food if taken in moderation.

I always loved to eat nuts as a kid, but I kept hearing that they were full of fat -- and that fat was bad. But as we've discussed before, there are "good fats" and "bad fats." You need to eat the good fats, and nuts are full of them. Nuts also are packed with fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.

Fat does contain, ounce for ounce, more calories than carbohydrates and protein. So that's an issue. If I ate as many nuts as I'd like to every day, I'd be obese -- and being obese is not healthy. That's why I said that snacking on nuts in moderation is healthy.

Earlier studies have shown that eating nuts lowers LDL ("bad" cholesterol), raises HDL ("good" cholesterol) and also lowers blood pressure. Since all of these are good for the heart, it made sense that eating nuts regularly but in moderation might reduce heart problems, and death from heart disease.

Recently published results from two long-running Harvard Medical School studies indicate that this may indeed be the case. The diets and health histories from nearly 120,000 participants in the Nurses' Health Study and the Physicians' Health Study were analyzed.

The researchers classified the participants into six categories that ranged from never eating nuts to eating them seven or more times per week. (Peanuts, which are actually legumes, counted as nuts in this study.) Those who ate nuts seven or more times a week had a 20 percent lower rate of death than those who did not eat nuts. They had lower rates of death from heart disease, lung disease and cancer.

Are certain nuts better than others? The health benefits appear to hold true for a variety of nuts, including walnuts, almonds, peanuts and pistachios. So eat your favorite.

To incorporate more nuts into your diet:
-- Spread nut butter on your morning toast.
-- Sprinkle chopped nuts on cereal or yogurt.
-- Toss nuts into a salad or stir-fry.
-- Top fruit with nut butter.

To return to the problem with nuts and calories: You can keep the calories in check with small portion sizes. In fact, research has shown that frequent nut eaters are less likely to gain weight. Nuts are high in protein and fiber, which decrease hunger. Perhaps because nuts are filling, nut eaters eat less overall.

Of course, if you like nuts as much as I do, it isn't easy to limit yourself to small portion sizes. But you can find nuts that are packaged in relatively small cellophane packets. I have one of these packages every day (or two if I've had one very light meal). The package gives me the discipline I need. Try it. It might work for you, too.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)


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