I can’t count how many times one of my patients swears up and down that their diet consists solely of Cheerios for breakfast, followed by half a sandwich at lunch, and a salad for dinner, and yet somehow they aren’t meeting their health goals.

More often than not, snacking is to blame. Ideally we’d like to have 5-6 small healthy meals each day but life just keeps getting in the way. So we reach for a bite of whatever is around us – bagels, cookies, crackers, muffins, anything quick and easy.

Add it up and these high carbohydrate processed foods have become a substantial part of the diet.

Trying to stop snacking isn’t easy. I get it. But what would you say if I told you about a healthy snack idea that is tasty, filling, and could reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by 37% and your risk of sudden cardiac death by almost half?

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

My Best Friend Is a Nut

Yes, nuts really can do all that. Consumption of tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and pistachios) and peanuts (technically a legume but with similar health benefits) are all associated with significant improvements in cardiovascular health, and possibly a reduction in the risk of diabetes. The greatest benefit goes to those who eat 4-5 servings or more per week.

Here’s why they’re so healthy:

  • They’re high in plant sterols which lowers both LDL and total cholesterol.
  • They’re high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats that reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • They’re packed with protein, fiber, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and other micronutrients.

Compared to almost every other naturally available food, nuts are about as healthy and complete as you can get.

The “Super Nuts”

While all of the above-mentioned nuts have similar benefits, almonds and walnuts stand out at the head of the class.

These “super nuts” have been extensively studied for their beneficial heart-protecting effects. In a recent clinical trial, walnuts were associated with a 10% reduction in LDL cholesterol, and almonds a 13% reduction in LDL cholesterol. In another study, adding almonds to the diet was associated with up to a 9% reduction in LDL. To put it in perspective, one serving of nuts a day is about a third as effective as a statin in lowering your cholesterol.

How many almonds or walnuts does it take to get that effect?

Thirty grams (each nut weighs about one gram) is representative of the “dose” that was studied in clinical trials. Thirty almonds provide about 150-200 Kcal which makes for a nice snack between meals.

But won’t eating nuts make me fat?

In a word: No. It is true that nuts have a lot of calories, mostly fat and protein. The good news is that fat and protein are more satisfying than carbohydrate; a small handful of nuts fills you up even better than a large muffin.

This may be why nuts are generally not associated with weight gain in clinical trials. Even so, ideally you would substitute a “dose” of nuts for one carbohydrate-rich snack each day, rather than simply adding nuts to your current diet (that would definitely increase your weight).

Much of the benefit to nuts is in the soft inner shell, so if you are having peanuts or pistachios be sure to eat that part too. Blanching nuts destroys anti-oxidants, but roasting almonds in particular protects their phenolic compounds, making them healthier than the unroasted variety. Go unsalted if your palate can handle it (reduce your sodium intake). If roasted almonds aren’t your thing, go with walnuts next and other nuts in no particular order after that. Nut flours and butters are ok as long as you watch the amount and make sure that there aren’t any ingredients other than nuts. Peanut butter in particular is often packed with emulsifiers, salt and sugar…no bueno.

So this week try to substitute out at least one carbohydrate snack (muffin, cookie, chips, pastry, bread) in favor of a handful of nuts. It could save your life someday.