- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Disco music and nuts have a lot in common. Both were popular decades ago. Both are fun but a little oily. And both have been staging a comeback.

In the 1960s and ‘70, nuts received praise for their nutritional virtues. In the ‘80s they landed on the taboo list as a primary suspect in weight gain, due to their high calorie counts. And now, wouldn’t you know it, nuts are back in the food rotation with high marks for their potential heart-healthy benefits.

I never had a problem with disco and, for that matter, I never held a grudge against nuts. Unfortunately, the bad rap nuts acquired in the 1980s lingers. I’m a dietitian, and when I mention nuts to clients, they often look at me quizzically and say, “Are you crazy? Nuts are so high in fat.”

It is true that nuts contain a lot of calories and fat, but did you ever stop to think about just how many nuts you are eating? Has anyone looked at the food label that is conveniently printed on the back of the nut jar to check how many nuts are in a serving portion?

Most likely, if you stay within the recommended portion, your waistline won’t expand. As with many foods in the modern diet, the problem is not the food itself, but the amount we eat that gives food — in this case nuts — a bad rep.

When you look at the situation more closely, it turns out that the fat in nuts may not even be that bad for you. Let me clarify a few points that I know are keeping you awake at night.

• Yes, nuts are highly caloric. Depending on the nut, one serving can have anywhere from 17 to 22 grams of fat. Sorry folks, there’s no getting around it.

• Although they have a lot of fat, most of it takes the form of mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, both so-called good fats because they may have the positive effect of lowering bad LDL cholesterol.

• Nuts are low in saturated fat, the bad fat that tends to increase LDL cholesterol that eventually congregates on the walls of your arteries and leads to atherosclerosis.

• Nuts contain no cholesterol. A quick reminder: Cholesterol only comes from animal products or animal byproducts. So nuts are in the clear.

As science evolves, we are discovering that there is more to nutrition than the familiar macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats. Equally important are the phytonutrients — compounds that act as antioxidants and help fight maladies such as heart disease and diabetes. (Don’t let the scientific name scare you. The word phytonutrients comes from the Greek, and it simply means nutrients from plants.)

Nuts are loaded with phytonutrients, as well as protein, fats (the good ones), vitamins and minerals. This lands them in the camp of foods we dietitians call nutrient dense.

So are nuts automatically good for you and, if so, how much should you eat? Here are the Cliffs Notes for some of the more common varieties.

• Walnuts are the flagship of the nut fleet, thanks to an abundance of omega 3 fatty acids. Yes, those are the same omega 3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as salmon and the newly fashionable flax seed oil. This miraculous stuff has been shown to have a positive effect on decreasing bad cholesterol (LDL), as well as decreasing C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation marker that is strongly associated with heart disease.

That’s not all. At 185 calories per ounce/serving (14 halves) and 17 grams fat, walnuts are also high in fiber, protein and magnesium and show the highest rating for nuts in antioxidants. No wonder they’re so popular in the cuisines of Europe, the Middle East, Near East, and even China.

• Almonds are another miracle nut prized for high levels of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant associated with preventing heart disease, cancer and stroke. Almonds are also an excellent source of calcium (think bones), magnesium (the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, mostly found in the bones and needed for about 300 reactions in the body) and protein.

A serving of one ounce (about 22 nuts) contains 165 calories and 14 grams of fat. Rather remarkably, one serving of almonds contains the same amount of protein minus the cholesterol as an egg.

• Peanuts are the most popular nut in America. This is all the more remarkable because, botanically speaking, a peanut isn’t really a nut at all but a close relative called a legume. But the peanut looks like a nut and tastes and acts like a nut, so for all intents and purposes, we’ll call it a nut.

Peanuts contain a significant 7 grams of protein per serving, plus high levels of iron, niacin, thiamin and copper, which are all essential nutrients. A serving of peanuts is one ounce (about 40 nuts), which weighs in at 160 calories and 14 grams fat.

I like peanut butter more than the nut itself, and it works just as well. One serving is 2 tablespoons. However, peanut butter does contain trans fats (very similar to saturated fats), but in small quantities.

To avoid trans fats altogether, buy the all-natural peanut butter (such as Smucker’s) — the sort in which the peanuts and the oils separate at room temperature. Simply stir to mix and you are good to go — and without the trans fats.

• Brazil nuts deliver both good and bad news. The good news is that they are high in magnesium and selenium, one of the few vitamin antioxidants that have been the subject of a lot of positive research. The not-so-good news is that they have the highest saturated fat content of readily available nuts.

One ounce of brazil nuts contains 186 calories and almost 19 grams of fat. Pecans are also high in total fat, tipping the scale at 20 grams total fat per serving (20 halves) and 196 calories. But they do have decent amounts of copper and zinc, which are both vital nutrients.

• Macadamia nuts top the charts with the most calories and fat at 204 calories and 22 grams fat per ounce/serving. What can I say? They taste good.

• Chestnuts (yes, chestnuts are nuts, too, despite the fact that you have to cook them) contain the least amount of fat and calories at just 70 calories and 1 gram of fat per ounce.

Chestnuts are similar in nutrition to brown rice. They are an excellent source of trace minerals and are often referred to as “the grain that grows on a tree.”

So, let’s review. Nuts can be good for us, but, indeed, they are packed with calories and fat. As a dietitian, I believe we should be consuming nuts in place of other highly saturated foods, such as chips and cheese.

If total calories stay within limits, one ounce of nuts consumed 4 or 5 days a week may actually help prevent weight gain and possibly promote weight loss.

Studies are showing the combination of nutrients in nuts may help us feel fuller longer so we eat less during the day.

How about them apples? Better yet, how about them apples dipped in peanut butter? A great snack.

As a rule, I prefer to incorporate nuts into a meal, rather than eating them straight as a snack. The reason is simple: Nuts are good. Really good. They’re so good that it’s easy to overdo it when snacking.

Instead, I fold them into salads and stir-fries, bake them in bread and stir them into yogurt and oatmeal. I try to eat a variety of nuts because each type has a different ratio of nutrients.

Nuts have a tendency to go rancid because of high fat contents. In general, whole nuts keep longer than chopped or sliced. Nuts in the shell stay fresher than hulled. (Invest in a cracker. It doesn’t hurt to have to work a little for your food.) And nuts keep longer if kept in the fridge or freezer.

I’m not sure what to expect next, but I’d like to hope nuts will stand the test of time as a health food. As for disco, can anyone really resist a disco ball or the Bee Gees?

Peanut dipping sauce

This is one of my favorite recipes, and it’s low in fat and calories. Serve it as a dip or serve it as a sauce for cooked noodles. It’s delicious both ways.

3 tablespoons chunky-style peanut butter

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger root

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced

2 scallions, minced

1/3 cup vegetable stock

3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 to 3 teaspoons honey or sugar

3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon Thai hot sauce or hot sauce of your choice

Sliced fruit or veggies for dipping, optional

Noodles of choice, optional

Coriander leaves for garnish, optional

Combine peanut butter, ginger root, garlic, scallion, stock, soy sauce or tamari, vinegar, honey or sugar, cilantro and hot sauce in a mixing bowl and whisk until smooth.

Correct the seasoning, adding more soy sauce, vinegar or honey to taste, if desired. The mixture should be a little sweet, sour and salty. Makes 1 cup. Serve it with fruit or veggies for dipping or toss it with noodles and garnish with fresh coriander, if desired.

Per 1 oz. serving (sauce only): 46 calories, 2 grams protein, 3 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, 418 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol.

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