By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina 

Checking out of Bucee’s on the way back from San Antonio last week, we grabbed a 99-cent pack of hot cashews that festooned the exit counter. The aroma and appearance were hard to resist. We both shrugged, smiled, and said, “Why not?”

Let’s face it, nuts have always had a bit of a seedy reputation. Calling someone a nut isn’t exactly a compliment. How would you like being called a health nut? The old song about, “Nuts, hot nuts, you get them anyway you can!” was truly edgy for the 60’s.

Why are nuts so consistently hidden away in our favorite desserts and cookies, like they are somehow illegal, furtive, and suspect? It somehow reminds me of stashing marijuana in brownies. On airplanes or in fine restaurants, we get little packs of nuts more suitable for a four-year old’s appetite and hands than for an adult.

Even the natural packaging of nuts is tough to crack, like it contains a hidden treasure. We have to work hard on pecans, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and walnuts, burning many calories just to get at the meat. But it is worth the effort, especially as we learn about the amazing health benefits of nuts.

True, nuts are high in calories and you should eat them by the handful, not the bagful. One handful is about 150 calories but is rich is the healthy fats, the omega-3’s, so popular in fish and fish oil supplements. Their delicious nutty flavor couples with the fact that nuts are also chock full of protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Seeds have many of the same benefits as tree nuts.  

Peanuts, a root crop, and a legume rather than a true nut, offers even more variety on getting nuts as a “superfood” into your diet. Peanut butter and almond butter without hydrogenated fats or salt are great spreads and a healthy snack on whole grain bread. Laura Scudder’s All Natural Old-Fashioned Peanut Butter is one of our favorites.

Some years ago, the Diamond Walnut Company sponsored research that showed a reduced risk of heart disease, cholesterol, and inflammation in those eating walnuts. It was pretty good science and a pretty good excuse to eat more nuts. Nuts also lower the risks of macular degeneration, improve immunity, have several anti-cancer properties, and are anti-oxidants.

The best way to eat nuts is how you most enjoy them but here are a few tips. Try to get the unsalted, unroasted varieties or raw nuts when you can. Many nuts are cooked in oils and salt and these detract from their healthfulness by loading them up with fat and sodium. Keep unshelled nuts in the refrigerator for longer shelf life, as the oils tend to get rancid.

I like cashews, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds-- you name it-- either by themselves or sprinkled into a salad, on a dessert, in home-made bread, muffins, even in soup. Add some protein and fiber to your breakfast by putting sliced almonds or pecans on your yogurt or oatmeal. Nuts are a great snack to keep on your desk for mid-morning or mid-afternoon munchies. They go great with a crisp, tart apple, pear, or other fresh or dried fruit.

Nuts also compliment main dishes. My wife’s luscious fresh-caught Gulf red snapper rolled in crushed pecans is simply the best fish dish I’ve ever eaten. Toast pine nuts quickly on a hot frying pan or in the oven to bring up the flavor, then add to a salad, pasta, or casserole. Put toasted pine nuts, walnuts, or sunflower seeds on top of steamed spinach, kale, or other cooked greens. Almond, walnut, or hazelnut oils are great for salad dressings.

So don’t worry about getting a little nutty. It is a great way to improve your diet and your health.

Dr. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB