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Nutrition in a Nutshell

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Fact: You can receive 10 grams of healthy monounsaturated fats from one-quarter cup of raw almonds, raw pecans or raw pistachios, three tablespoons of raw hazelnuts or two tablespoons of raw macadamia nut.

Fact: You can receive 10 grams of healthy monounsaturated fats from one-quarter cup of raw almonds, raw pecans or raw pistachios, three tablespoons of raw hazelnuts or two tablespoons of raw macadamia nuts.

Kudos to squirrels and chipmunks! Contrary to long-held public opinion, nuts offer a full bag of health benefits and can even help you lose weight. Traditional cultures have historically used nuts to stimulate milk production in nursing mothers, to treat earaches and dysentery and as nerve tonics. Newer research also suggests that nuts have cancer-fighting and other disease-fighting properties.

Nutty Nutrients

Nuts contain primarily the heart-friendly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated types of fat, which are known to prevent heart disease and lower total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol while protecting good HDL cholesterol levels. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that oils high in monounsaturated fats lowered LDL cholesterol even more than a low-fat diet. You can receive 10 grams (about two teaspoons) of healthy monounsaturated fats from one-quarter cup of raw almonds, raw pecans or raw pistachios, three tablespoons of raw hazelnuts or two tablespoons of raw macadamia nuts.

Some nuts also contain significant levels of essential fatty acids (EFAs), which are vital for circulation, hemoglobin and energy production, learning and weight loss. The western diet generally doesn't contain enough alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), an EFA known to improve immunity, skin problems and hyperactivity. Munching on walnuts is an especially good way to boost omega-3 levels in the body.

To many a vegetarian's delight, nuts have a high protein content (15 to 25 percent), making them a healthy alternative to meat and fish products. With a handful of almonds or pistachios, you receive almost as much protein (21 g) as a hamburger (24 g). Nuts also contain insoluble fibre, which reduces the risk of colorectal cancer, and soluble fibre, which helps reduce blood cholesterol and blood sugars.

Full of vitamins and minerals, nuts are particularly rich in vitamin E, which helps protect them from rancidity and is a nerve protector and immune-enhancing antioxidant in humans. The phytochemicals found in nuts are necessary for reproductive health and were recently found to lower cholesterol and protect against colon cancer.

Know Your Nuts

The market is flooded with domestic and imported nut varieties, each with its own unique characteristics. Here's a list of favourites.

Almond: Known as the "king of nuts." A slightly sweet variety that is high in calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and protein. Often found in oil and butter form.

Cashew: Grown mostly in India and Brazil. Contains high amounts of potassium, magnesium and vitamin A.

Chestnut: The lowest in fat content. Rich in dietary fibre, several minerals and B vitamins.

Filbert (hazelnut): Mildly flavoured, high in potassium, sulphur and calcium. A favourite for bakers.

Peanut: A complete protein source. Has the highest fat content of all nuts. Actually a legume, not a nut.Often contaminated with the mould aflatoxin, a known carcinogen.

Pecan: A member of the hickory family. Rich in essential fatty acids, potassium and vitamin A.

Pine nut (pignolia): A sweet and chewy nut popular in Middle Eastern and Italian cuisine. An excellent source of thiamin and phosphorus. Contains iron and niacin. Highly susceptible to rancidity.

Pistachio: Tastes sweet, bitter and slightly sour. Commonly available salted. An excellent source of iron.

Walnut: high in potassium, magnesium, vitamin A and omega-3 essential fatty acids (five per cent of its total oils). In Chinese medicine, used to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.

Selection And Storage

To get the most from your nut intake, keep these purchasing tips in mind. Organic, non-sprayed varieties are best. Once hulled or de-shelled, nuts and seeds start to go rancid and lose their nutritive value, so buy shelled nuts only and they should last up to one year. As heat and light speed oxidation, store them in cold, dark places in glass containers.

Don't give in to that tempting bag of roasted nuts at the check-out stand. High temperatures during roasting damage the good oils in nuts. The best way to eat nuts is to soak them overnight to begin the sprouting process, which makes the fats and proteins more digestible. Then dry them and eat them raw. Why not incorporate nuts into your own trail mix for a quick energy boost, or sprinkle them on fresh salads? Try experimenting with nut-based pie crusts or adding nuts to homemade veggie burgers or loaves.

Got Nut Milk?

Nut milks are another way to incorporate nuts into the diet. Easy and fun to make, nut milks are loaded with enzymes and don't require cooking. Steve Meyerowitz, known as the Sproutman, offers this delicious recipe for almond milk. The result is a surprisingly creamy, non-dairy drink packed full of taste and goodness.

Soak one cup (250 ml) of almonds in pure water overnight, then discard the soak water and rinse almonds. Thoroughly blend almonds with two cups (500 ml) of pure water and strain out the nut-meat using a sieve. Stir in one cup (250 ml) of apple juice. Refrigerate and drink within a couple of days. You can also substitute other types of nuts into this basic recipe. The liquid-to-nut ratio is usually about three or four to one. Makes four cups.

Nut Therapy

A small handful of nuts can lower bad cholesterol as effectively as medication, new Canadian research has found. University of Toronto researchers gave study participants 37 grams of almonds every day for a month, after which their low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad" cholesterol) fell 4.4 per cent. Eating more almonds (74 grams a day) resulted in a 9.4 per cent drop in LDL. Plus, the radio of bad to good cholesterol fell by 12 per cent. The results, published in the Aug. 20, 2002, issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, show that nuts, when eaten raw, are an important part of a heart-healthy diet.

Hey History Nuts, Did You Know That...?

  • Nuts are one of human's earliest food sources. Using radioactive dating, archaeologists have found evidence of peanuts in Peru as far back as 1200 to 1500 BC.

  • In 1372, an inventory of household goods of the queen of France listed only 20 pounds of sugar but 500 pounds of almonds.

  • The macadamia nut, originally from Australia, was introduced to Hawaii in 1888.
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