To Your Health
April, 2011 (Vol. 05, Issue 04)
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Healthier Snacks for Kids: Nuts and Seeds

By Dr. Claudia Anrig

With the growing concern of childhood obesity – rates have tripled in the last 30 years, and approximately 30 percent of all children are obese – it's definitely time to focus on your child's snacking habits.

Typically, children are reaching for high-calorie sodas, sports drinks, potato chips and microwave snacks when they need something light and nutritious between meals. What they might be missing is something as simple as the health benefits of nuts and seeds.

Research continues to reveal that nuts and seeds do not deserve their bad reputation. Absolutely, they are high in fat; but it's the good fat, not the bad, and when eaten in moderation, their health benefits far outweigh the dangers of their fat content. The fact is, the more we learn about nuts and seeds, the more we realize that they're one of the best snack-food options for children.

The Fat Facts

nuts in hand - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark We know that nuts and seeds are high in fat. An ounce of almonds and sunflower seeds each has a total fat count of 14 grams; cashews have 13 grams and pecans have 20 grams apiece per ounce. It's when we consider what kind of fat they contain that we see the difference between these and other foods with a high total fat count.

Saturated fats raise our "bad" cholesterol levels (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) and increase our risk of heart disease and stroke. These are the fats that are high in most snack items and put our health at risk. By comparison, an ounce of almonds contains 1 gram of saturated fat, while cashews and pecans have 3 and 2 grams per ounce, respectively.

Where nuts and seeds are high in fat is in the mono- and polyunsaturated fats; however, these are good for us because they raise our "good" cholesterol levels (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) and typically contain essential vitamins like A, D, E and K. An ounce of almonds contains a combined 12 grams of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, cashews contain 10 combined grams and pecans have 18 combined grams.

Health Benefits

In 1996, the Iowa Women's Health Study found that women who ate nuts four or more times a week were 40 percent less likely to die of heart disease. Since then, similar studies performed by the Harvard School of Public Health and Loma Linda University in California have found the same. And the Physicians' Health Study (2002) determined that men who consumed nuts two or more times per week had a noticeably reduced risk of sudden cardiac death.

A study at the University of Toronto found that nuts, almonds in particular, reduced risk factors that are typically associated with heart disease, specifically LDL count. Richard Mattes, PhD, professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in Indiana, found that when people added 1-2 ounces of nuts a day to their diets, they did not gain weight, contrary to popular belief.

Studies performed at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that three times as many people who were trying to lose weight were able to stick to a diet that included moderate fat content in the form of nuts and seeds. Researchers suggested that the fat, protein and fiber in nuts helped the dieters feel full longer, so many felt less deprived and ate less during the day.

Another study of women by the Harvard School of Public Health reported that there was a 30 percent reduced risk of type 2 diabetes in those women who ate five or more 1-ounce servings of nuts per week as compared with women who rarely or never ate nuts.

Finally, studies published in the Journal of Nutrition and elsewhere have found that seeds, flax seeds in particular, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have proven benefits in the fight against heart disease, stroke and other circulatory diseases.

Moderation Is the Key

When it comes to food in general, too much of a good thing can still end up being a bad thing; that's why moderation is key. But the options for eating good nuts and seeds are limitless, and the vitamins and minerals provided are equally various. A typical serving of nuts (1 ounce) generally will contain between 160 to 200 calories and 13 to 20 grams of fat, but it's monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that make up the majority. When compared to potato chips, pastries and other typical "snack food" items with equal fat content, the difference lies in the nutritional value of the item as a whole. Most nuts and seeds are rich in fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium, as well as sterols and omega-3s.