February is National Heart Health Awareness month so this is the perfect time to talk about some of the tasty foods we can eat that are good for our heart. We all know fruits, vegetables and fish offer heart benefits, but you may be surprised to learn that nuts can also be included in a heart healthy diet.

This year, most of us will eat a little more than three pounds of nuts. That’s about twice the amount that the average person ate in 1980. Here are just some of the reasons we have become so nuts about nuts:

Nutritional Value

Nuts are nutritionally dense, and loaded with soluble fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and many other beneficial compounds. Almonds lead the nutritional charts. Consider this: A one-ounce serving of almonds provides 6 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, and 75 mg calcium. Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E, magnesium and manganese; and they are a good source of copper, phosphorous, niacin and riboflavin. Good things really do come in small packages. Nuts are an ideal snack or complement to a meal because they are nutritious, tasty and affordable.

Heart Health

There are several reasons why nuts are good for the heart. Eating certain nuts – especially almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios – can help lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol, reduce your risk of developing blood clots, and support the health of your blood vessels (helping them to relax). These beneficial effects are tied to the following compounds:

Fiber: Nuts contain soluble fiber, which helps lower LDL cholesterol. Fiber also plays a role in weight management by creating a feeling of fullness and reducing calorie intake. Fiber also helps improve blood sugar control and this can help stave off diabetes. These are all important factors in the prevention of heart disease.

L-arginine: This amino acid supports the health of blood vessels by making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots. Nuts that are highest in l-arginine include pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts and peanuts.

Omega-3 fatty acids: These beneficial fatty acids support the heart by reducing triglycerides, preventing clotting, reducing inflammation and also preventing dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks. While fish provide a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids, nuts are one of the best plant-based sources.

Plant sterols: These compounds are naturally present in nuts, seeds and many vegetables. They help support heart health by lowering LDL cholesterol. Nuts with the highest plant sterol content – between 113-280- mg of plant sterols per 100 gram serving – include almonds, walnuts, pistachios, macadamias and pecans.

Vitamin E: This vital antioxidant helps to fight off free radical damage and oxidation of LDL cholesterol (which is part of the process of atherosclerosis). Almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts contain the highest amount of vitamin E.

Weight Management

If you avoid nuts because of their calorie and fat content, you may be happy to know that nuts can actually support weight management. This is an issue that has been examined in several clinical studies. One review of 31 studies concluded that nuts could actually help with weight loss. The pooled results of these studies indicated that people who added nuts to their diet and replaced other foods with nuts lost more weight, an average of 1.4 pounds, and reduced their waist size by more than half of an inch. Maintaining a healthy body weight is key for supporting heart health.

Adding Nuts to Your Diet

Nuts are versatile as well as flavorful. They pair well with foods that are sweet, salty or savory. This makes it easy and fun to find creative ways to incorporate them into your diet:
• Sprinkle chopped or ground nuts over cereal or yogurt. This will add protein and fiber to your breakfast, and keep you feeling full longer.

• Make a salad dressier and more satisfying with a handful of slivered almonds, cashews or walnuts.

• Incorporate nuts into recipes for muffins, breads and cookies. Try chopped walnuts in banana muffins, pecans in your chocolate chip cookies, and adding ground almonds to snack cakes.

• Keep a bag of nuts handy in your handbag, car or desk drawer to satisfy a snack craving.

When it comes to being nutritional powerhouses, brightly colored fruits and vegetables always seem to grab the heart health headlines. Now you know that nuts – in moderation – can also play an important role in keeping your body and your heart healthy. For those who are allergic to tree nuts and legumes, Sunfiber is an easy way to add fiber for heart- and digestive-health.