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Put your nutcracker to use this holiday season

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Snacking is as much a holiday tradition as turkey, tree lights, parties and shopping.

Those heaping plates of treats rarely provide healthy options, but few people complain– at least not until the New Year, when they realize they gained a few extra pounds.

Actually, though, a healthy holiday alternative might have been there all along, just ignored because of the more enticing sugary treats surrounding it. Many snack trays include healthy nuts of various kinds (after all, this is the season of the nutcracker), but data shows that the typical American is more apt to reach for cookies, candy and chips. And it’s not just a seasonal thing: six out of 10 Americans don’t eat any nuts on a given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP).

Nuts often play second fiddle to less nutritious snacks, despite studies going back to the 1990s linking them to positive health outcomes– from lower cholesterol and blood pressure to reduced risk of cardiovascular problems.

Maybe this year, though, is the time to put that nutcracker to good use.

Earl Mindell, an internationally-recognized expert on nutrition, vitamins and herbal remedies, said the holidays are prime time for people to gain an awareness of the health benefits of nuts.

“Many of us love pecan pie, especially during the holidays,” Mindell said. “But eaten separately throughout the year, as is the case with almonds, chestnuts, walnuts and other tree nuts, they’ll significantly change your diet for the better. The nutritional values and different ways nuts protect your health are worth changing your snack habits.”

Mindell said the following four nuts offer many health plusses (and make great stocking stuffers to balance out all those marshmallow snowmen and candy canes):

  • Almonds. These are loaded with antioxidants– which have been found to help protect against inflammation, aging, heart disease and cancer– and vitamin E. Several studies have linked higher vitamin E intake with lower rates of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. “Also, high amounts of magnesium in almonds can help lower blood-sugar levels,” Mindell said. “Many people don’t get enough magnesium.”
  • Chestnuts. The Christmas song begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but many may forget about chestnuts once the holidays pass. If you’re worried about picking up an extra five or more pounds from Thanksgiving through January– as many Americans do– this could be your nut. “It’s low in fat,” Mindell said, “and a good source of magnesium, protein, vitamin E and dietary fiber, which you need for colon health. You need to look into keeping them around all year.”
  • Pecans. This is another nut high in antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats, which help lower cholesterol. Of particular interest to men, the beta-sitosterol in pecans has been shown to be helpful to prostate health. “They’re also rich in several B-complex groups of vitamins, which help increase the rate of metabolism, so it could help in losing weight,” Mindell said.
  • Walnuts. These have the highest content of antioxidants of any nut. Walnuts are also a good source of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, including plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 oils have been shown to raise serotonin levels in the brain, so there’s a school of thought that consistent walnut consumption can ward off depression. “Walnuts are one of those treats you might only think about during the holidays, and that’s a shame,” Mindell said. “They’re full of amazing stuff.”

“We all should be eating more nuts,” Mindell said. “The research is all there, supporting how they reduce the risk of chronic diseases, provide many daily health benefits and can add longevity.”

Earl Mindell, R.Ph., M.H., Ph.D., is an internationally-recognized expert on nutrition, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbal remedies. He is the author of 63 health-oriented books. He is currently an associate professor at Chapman University, School of Pharmacy.

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Put your nutcracker to use this holiday season