Nuts are among the most healthful foods you can eat. Rich in nutrients, they can help prevent some of the most common—and most serious diseases.

Example: In a long-running health study conducted by researchers at Loma Linda University, participants were asked what foods they ate most often. Those who ate nuts five or more times a week were about 50% less likely to have a heart attack than those who ate them less than once a week.

Forget The Fat

Many Americans avoid nuts because they want to cut back on fat and calories. It's true that a single serving of nuts can have 20 grams (g) or more of fat and 180 to 200 calories, but most of the fats are healthful fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fat. Americans need to get more, not less, of these fats. As long as you limit yourself to a small handful of nuts daily--the recommended amount, unless otherwise noted—you don't need to worry about the "extra" calories.

Each type of nut contains a different mix of nutrients, fats and protective antioxidants, which can "neutralize" cell-damaging free radicals. People who eat a variety of nuts will get the widest range of benefits. Raw, toasted or roasted nuts are fine as long as they are unsalted.

Here's what nuts can do…

Nuts For The Heart

All nuts are good for the heart, but the following nuts are especially beneficial…

  • Macadamia nuts. Of the 21 g of total fat in a serving of macadamias, 17 g are monounsaturated the kind of fat that lowers a person's levels of harmful LDL cholesterol without lowering levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol. Both the antioxidants and the monounsaturated fat in macadamias have anti-inflammatory effects that are important for curtailing arterial damage that can lead to heart disease.
  • Peanuts. Actually a type of legume, not a true nut, peanuts contain 34 micrograms (mcg of folate per one-ounce serving a little less than 10% of the recommended daily amount. Folate is a B vitamin that lowers levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that damages arteries and increases the risk of heart disease.

Peanuts also are high in L-arginine, an amino acid that is converted by cells in blood vessels into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide improves circulation and may inhibit fatty buildups in the arteries

  • Pistachios. A 2007 study conducted by Penn State University found that pistachios lower blood pressure. Men who added 15 ounces of shelled pistachios to their daily diets had drops in systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) of 4.8 points. The antioxidants and healthy fats in pistachios relax blood vessels and allow blood to circulate with less force.

Almonds For Bones

Just about everyone needs more calcium, the mineral that strengthens bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. The recommended daily amount is 1,000 milligrams (mg). Almonds have more calcium than other nuts, with about 80 mg in 20 to 25 nuts. For people with lactose intolerance, who have trouble digesting dairy, a daily dose of almonds helps raise calcium to bone-protecting levels.

Blood pressure bonus: One serving of almonds has 98 mg of magnesium, about one-fourth the recommended daily amount Magnesium, along with potassium and calcium, controls the relaxation and contraction of blood vessels and can help control blood pressure.

Brazil Nuts For Prostate

Brazil nuts are a superb source of selenium, with about 155 mcg in just two nuts. The recommended daily amount is 55 mcg. They're also high in vitamin E. One study the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial—found that men getting selenium and vitamin E, alone or in combination, reduced their risk of prostate cancer by up to 60%. Selenium improves the ability of the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells in the prostate. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that also has been linked to reduced cancer risk.

Caution: People who get too much selenium may have decreased immunity. Because Brazil nuts are so high in selenium and calories (50 calories in two nuts), don't have more than two nuts daily. If you take a multivitamin that has more than 50% of the daily value of selenium, opt for one nut.

Pecans For The Eyes

The most serious eye diseases, including cataracts and macular degeneration, are caused, in part, by free radicals. The antioxidants in nuts and other plant foods fight free radicals to keep the eyes healthy.

A study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that pecans are particularly rich in antioxidants. The National Eye Institute's Age-Related Eye Diseases Study reported that patients with macular degeneration who had adequate intakes of antioxidants were 29% less likely to experience disease progres sion than those who got lower levels.

Bonus for heart health: The vitamin E in pecans reduces the tendency of LDL cholesterol to oxidize and stick to artery walls. Pecans also are high in phytosterols-plant compounds that are similar to the active ingredients in cholesterol-lowering margarines, such as Benecol.

Walnuts For Mood

Apart from fish and flaxseed, walnuts are one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

They're the only nut that contains alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a polyunsaturated fat that is converted to omega-3s in the body.

The omega-3s appear to help maintain healthy brain levels of serotonin, a neurochemical involved in mood. People who eat walnuts and/or two to three fish meals a week may experience a reduction in symptoms of depression.

Bonus for heart health: Omega-3s lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, another type of blood fat...increase HDL good cholesterol... inhibit blood clots in the arteries...and reduce arterial inflammation.

The Brain Power Supplement

In a new study of 2,000 men and women (average age 72), those with the lowest levels of selenium had cognitive test scores equivalent to scores of someone who is 10 years older, compared with people with the highest levels of the trace mineral.

Theory: Selenium protects against free radicals, which can cause cellular damage in the brain.

Self-defense: Aim to get the recommended daily intake of selenium-55 micrograms (mcg) for adults-through foods, such as nuts, whole grains and seafood.. and/or supplements.

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