They Lower Risk for Heart Attack, Cancer, Cataracts and More

Nuts are some of the healthiest snacks you can eat. But did you know that certain kinds of nuts are beneficial for specific health problems?

For example, there’s a particular nut that’s been linked to reduced risk for diabetes…another nut that slows the progression of a serious eye disease by 25%…and yet another nut that helps curb cholesterol levels.

Do you know which particular nuts provide these and other benefits?

Here’s what you need to know about eight of the most popular nuts—and the health benefits of each…

Almonds

If you are one of the millions of Americans who takes medication to reduce cholesterol, you might want to add ­almonds to the mix.

One three-month study tested 27 men and women with high cholesterol. People who ate about a handful of almonds a day lowered their “bad” LDL cholesterol by an average of 4.4%. Those who ate two handfuls lowered it by 9.4%.

Brazil Nuts

These are higher in selenium than just about any other food. Selenium is an antioxidant that reduces cholesterol and decreases the risk for blood clots and heart attacks.

Important for men: The body needs ­selenium to produce testosterone, the hormone that helps maintain a man’s bone density, muscle strength and sex drive.

Brazil nuts are higher in fat than many other nuts, but they aren’t the “fat bombs” most people imagine. When you eat Brazil nuts, filberts or other hard nuts, the cell walls aren’t completely broken down during digestion. You will absorb less fat than you would with softer nuts, such as macadamias (see below).

Cashews

Despite their velvety texture, cashews are one of the lowest fat nuts at 13 grams (g) of fat per ounce—with the majority of fats, including phytosterols and tocopherols, being good for the heart. Cashews also are good for your weight. When you eat a handful of cashews, the body releases cholecystokinin, a hormone that increases feelings of fullness. As long as you eat the nuts slowly enough to allow the hormone to kick in, you will find that you say “enough” before you’ve overdone it.

Macadamia Nuts

These are delicious—and high in fat. But more than 82% of the fat in macadamias is monounsaturated. Olive oil, another “good” fat that has been linked to cardiovascular health, is between 55% and 83% monounsaturated.

Macadamia nuts also are a good source of fiber, with 2.3 g per one-ounce serving. A Journal of Nutrition study found that people who got most of their fiber from macadamia nuts had a greater reduction in LDL and total cholesterol than those who ate a similar diet without the nuts.

Peanuts

Peanuts technically are a legume, but they act like nuts. They reduce the risk of dying from cancer, heart disease and other conditions.

Peanuts are rich in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that reduces inflammation. The large, multidecade Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that people who regularly ate peanut butter, peanuts or other nuts were less likely to develop diabetes.

Pecans

It may be carrots that have a reputation for improving eye health, but you also might want to take a 20/20 look at ­pecans. Reason: Cataracts, macular degeneration and other serious eye diseases are caused in part by free radicals. The antioxidants in nuts and other plant foods help prevent free radicals from damaging eye tissues. One study found that antioxidants—including the vitamin E in pecans and other nuts—helped slow the progression of macular degeneration by about 25%.

When USDA researchers measured the antioxidant capacity of more than 100 foods, they found that pecans were at the top of the nut pack.

Pistachio Nuts

This is another nut that men should love. In one study, men with erectile dysfunction were given 100 g (a little more than three ounces) of pistachios daily for three weeks. They showed an increase in IIEF scores (a measure of the ability to get erections) and improvements in blood flow. They also had an increase in HDL, which helps prevent cholesterol from clogging arteries in the penis.

Pistachios are particularly high in ­arginine, an amino acid used by the body to produce nitric oxide, a gas that causes blood vessels to dilate. It is important not just for sexual health but for overall cardiovascular health as well.

Walnuts

Walnuts are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based form of the ­omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish. A one-ounce serving of walnuts has 2.5 g of ALA, compared with about 0.5 g in pecans and none in other nuts. The ALA in walnuts appears to rival the health benefits of the longer-chain omega-3s in fish. One study, published in Diabetes Care, found that people who ate walnuts had an increase in beneficial HDL cholesterol and a drop in harmful LDL. The fatty acids in walnuts may slow the progression of arterial plaques that produce clots, the cause of most heart attacks.

Bonus: A recent study found that eating walnuts with meals decreased the inflammation that occurs immediately after eating a steak or other foods high in saturated fat. Inflammation is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ­diseases.

Raw, Roasted, Shelled or Spread?

Are salted, roasted nuts bad for you? Not really. Assuming that you limit yourself to one ounce of nuts a day, you will get only 110 milligrams (mg) of extra sodium by eating salted ­varieties. The extra oil that comes with oil-roasted nuts is not an issue—that adds up to only about one gram per ­serving.

Those supersweet nut spreads are another story. Example: Nutella, a popular brand using hazelnuts, is high in saturated fat and loaded with sugar—5.5 teaspoons of sugar in two tablespoons. It is more like frosting than like a true nut butter.

Also, the “crunch” from whole nuts seems to trigger satiety, the feeling of fullness that causes you to stop eating. This doesn’t occur when you eat nut butters—even the crunchy kind—so to control calories, go easy on nut butters.

Although nuts are good for you, they are highly caloric. So if you must watch your weight, buy nuts in the shell and, as you eat them, pile up the shells where you can see them. According to a recent study, people who ate shelled pistachios consumed 211 calories at a sitting but those who removed the nut from the shell ate only 86 calories.