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The new nutrition mantra: go nuts

Research over the past two decades has shown that a daily dose of a small handful of nuts brings health benefits, reports Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Nov 18, 2007 01:50 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

Fat is not bad. Now that potato, polished rice and pasta have fallen out of favour because of their high carb and high glycaemic content, nutritionally potent nuts are back on the platter of the health conscious. The new nutrition mantra celebrates the good mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, and insists that nuts — once shunned for being high in fat and calories — actually help people lose weight and keep it off.

Research over the past two decades has consistently shown that a daily dose of a small handful of nuts brings health benefits. Even though 30 gm (roughly 1/4 cup) of unroasted nuts provide 157 to 204 calories and 13 to 22 grams of fat, adding two servings (50 gm) of almonds a day to the diet has no effect on body weight, reported a study in the British Journal of Nutrition.

“Diets that exclude any food group, however bad, are not healthy. The big problem with low-fat advice is that people stop having good fats along with fats that are bad for health,” says Santosh Jain Passi, reader in nutrition, Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi.

Dieters also tend to substitute fats with simple carbohydrates. “The other problem is that people who switch to a low-fat diets replace fats with carbohydrates such as potatoes, white rice and refined flour, which are easily digested and leave them feeling hungry soon,” she adds.

A study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that people lost more weight on a moderate fat diet with high-fibre nuts added than on a low-fat diet with no nuts. Contrary to conventional wisdom that no more than 30 per cent of calories should come from fat, the Harvard study found that people who got 35 per cent of their calories from the more healthy fats — the kind found in fatty fish, almonds, walnuts and peanuts — were three times more likely to keep the weight off than those who ate a diet with just 20 per cent calories from fat.

Nutritionists say nuts help people stick to diets better because many of the commercially available fat-free foods have virtually no fibre. “The complex fibre found in nuts provides a feeling of satiety and fullness, which discourages people from snacking on junk,” says Passi.

The fibre also helps in regulating blood sugar. A study found that adding almond to a low-calorie diet was effective in improving glycaemic control and in controlling metabolic abnormalities in adults with type-2 diabetes, which accounts for about 98 per cent of all diabetes in India.

The American Heart Association has long said that certain nuts contain heart-healthy poly-unsaturated or mono-unsaturated fats and should be included in the diet. Large international studies — including the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study that surveyed 86,000 women, the Physicians’ Health Study of over 22,000 men, and the Adventist Health Study of over 40,000 people — have all established the link between eating nuts regularly and lowered risk of heart disease and stroke.

The heart-protective benefits are due to the lowering of total cholesterol, particularly artery-blocking bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) levels. “The mono-unsaturated fat found in nuts, like the fat in olive oil, helps lower bad cholesterol without affecting the levels of heart-protecting good cholesterol (HDL). Nuts are high in disease-fighting antioxidants that have anti-ageing properties and are essential for healthy skin and hair,” says Rekha Sharma, former head of dietetics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and current senior vice president (healthcare) at VLCC. Eating the recommended amount (a handful a day), results in a higher drop in blood cholesterol levels.

Recognising the benefits of nuts, the US Food and Drug Administration allows packaged nuts — such as almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts — to carry the line: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

“The problem of course, is that nuts are calorie dense. But as long as you substitute a fatty snack like biscuits or namkeens for a small handful of mixed nuts — it should not exceed one-third of a cup for people watching their weight — you will benefit,” says Sharma. Provided, of course, that you do not deep fry the nuts or have them with lots of salt!

First Published: Nov 18, 2007 01:06 IST