BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. - Nuts are high in calories and fat, but those calories are loaded with nutrition. "Nuts in moderate amounts daily can make a huge difference in your health," said a University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health specialist.

Studies have consistently linked nuts to a significantly reduced risk of heart disease, mostly because they lower total cholesterol and LDL ("bad" cholesterol), said Susan Mills-Gray. Some research has even shown that nuts may increase HDL ("good" cholesterol).

Nutrients and substances in nuts that have heart-protective benefits include B vitamins, vitamin E, potassium, copper, magnesium, selenium, soluble fiber, arginine (an amino acid that promotes blood vessel relaxation) and sterols (which help lower cholesterol).

In 2003, the FDA approved heart-health claims for the product labels of seven kinds of nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.

Nuts are one of the best plant sources of protein. Nut butters (almond, cashew and peanut) are a healthier sandwich filling than full-fat cheese and most deli meats.

New research indicates that eating nuts daily may serve as an effective tool in weight loss and weight management. "The fiber and protein in nuts helps make you feel fuller longer, so you are less hungry, and that means you may eat less," Mills-Gray said.

Interestingly, some research has found that not all the fat in whole nuts is absorbed - from 4 percent to 17 percent passes out of the body undigested.

"While all this is great news, keep in mind that nuts are loaded with calories," she said. "Even though the fat is healthy, going overboard could lead to excess calorie intake. Limit yourself to a small handful daily, and instead of simply adding nuts to your diet, eat them in replacement of saturated-fat foods."

Consumers should also watch out for the sodium in packaged nuts. Unsalted varieties are widely available.

Mills-Gray offered a quick assessment of the nutritional strength of popular nuts:

  • Almonds are rich in vitamin E and calcium.
  • Brazil nuts are the best dietary source of selenium; eating three a day provides 200 mcg, an amount found to lower the risk of prostate cancer.
  • Cashews are rich in copper and zinc.
  • Chestnuts are lowest in calories and contain extremely small amounts of fat.
  • Peanuts contain resveratrol, an antioxidant also found in grapes and red wine. They are rich in arginine and contain the most protein.
  • Walnuts are rich in alpha-linolenic acid, a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid.

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