Nuts as functional foods

Food manufacturers gave nuts a bad name when they started adding evil ingredients to them. "Party mix", "honey-roasted", mixed nuts, etc., are made with added hydrogenated oils, salt, sugar, excessive quantities of raisins, or other added ingredients that turned a healthy food--nuts--into something that made us fat and hypertensive, raised LDL, dropped HDL, and raised blood pressure.

But nuts themselves are, for the most part, very healthy foods. The very best are nuts with a brown fiber coating like almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Nearly all nuts also come rich in monounsaturated oils similar to that in olive oil. Although calorie-dense, nuts tend to be very filling and slash your appetite for other foods. I have never seen anyone gain weight by adding raw nuts to their diet. In fact, I find adding raw nuts cuts craving for sweets.

Nuts are also among the most concentrated sources of magnesium, containing around 150 mg per 1/2 cup serving. As most Americans are at least marginally if not severely deficient in magnesium, this really helps. Magnesium deficiency is a prominent aspect of "metabolic syndrome" and resistance to insulin.

Some nuts have added benefits like the l-arginine content of almonds or the linolenic acid content of walnuts. However, I think the real health "punch" comes from the fiber and monounsaturate content.

Add 1/4-1/2 cup of raw almonds, walnuts, or pecans per day to your diet and what can you expect? The effects that I see every day that are relevant to plaque control/heart scan score-reducing efforts include:

--Reduction in LDL--usually a 20 mg/dl drop, sometimes more.

--Reduction in triglycerides, especially if nuts replace processed carbohydrate calories. This may be because the fiber and monounsaturate content of nuts reduces blood sugar and the effective glycemic index of any accompanying foods.

--Modest blood pressure reduction.

--Though somewhat inconsistent, partial suppression of the dreaded small LDL particle pattern. We struggle with turning off the small LDL pattern in some people, and raw nuts can provide a real advantage.

If that isn't enough, the fiber content also makes your bowels regular.

Unless there's some reason to avoid nuts (e.g., allergy), nuts should be a part of your heart scan score reducing program. Shop around, as prices can vary wildly. I've been paying $12.99 for a 3 lb bag of raw almonds from Sam's Club, though I've seen almonds elsewhere for up to $12.99 per pound.

For additional commentary, go to one of my favorite Blogs, The Fanatic Cook's recent post, The Season for Walnuts , provides additional discussion on walnuts and the recent study showing how they improve "endothelial function". The nutritionist behind this Blog has fabulous insights into food, including the concept of "functional foods", i.e., using foods as a treatment tool. She is also unfailingly entertaining.