I’ve always been a nut about nuts. Back when I was a kid in the Parkmead School cafeteria, my mouth watered whenever I pulled a peanut butter sandwich out of my crumpled lunch sack. Saturday matinees at the El Rey weren’t complete without the crunchy nirvana of an Almond Joy candy bar. And I was ecstatic when Mom and Dad popped open a can of cashews for their bridge parties.
Then I grew up, was told that nuts are salty and fattening, and for a while did my best to snack on carrots and celery instead. But those days are done: I’m back to devouring nuts. Yes, they’re laden with fat—a mere handful contains around 200 calories—but I now know they’re fats that are good for me. In fact, the formerly naysaying experts have come full circle, and now are encouraging us to eat nuts on a regular basis.
“For years, the high calorie content of nuts gave them a bad rap,” says Christine Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition and associate dean at Georgia State University. “But a growing number of studies confirm their value as part of a healthy, balanced diet.”
What makes nuts so healthy? Take your pick. They’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. They’re full of fiber. And they’re loaded with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, specifically the omega-3s so highly touted these days for reducing the risk of stroke, arthritis, and heart disease. The FDA has even okayed health claims on some packaged nuts, including almonds, pistachios, peanuts, walnuts, and pecans; labels can now say that eating about 1.5 ounces a day of most nuts “as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol” may lower your risk of heart disease.
Last September, nuts got another boost when the Journal of the American Medical Association published a pair of studies suggesting that Europeans who follow a healthy lifestyle and a Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of nuts, are blessed with a lower incidence not just of heart disease but of cancer as well—and lead demonstrably more robust lives. And a separate study from Harvard published in 2002 found that women who ate peanut butter or other nut products five or more times a week significantly lowered their risk of Type 2 diabetes.
That was all the excuse I needed. And since I started eating nuts again, I’ve noticed that my borderline-high blood pressure has dropped. I can’t give nuts all the credit—I’m working on cutting out some of the stress in my life, too—but there could be a connection. Studies suggest that most nuts are high in the amino acid arginine, which helps relax blood vessels. Still, what I’m enjoying most about the good news on nuts is not necessarily the health payoff, but that a peanut butter sandwich is no longer a guilty pleasure.