“A” is for Almonds

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Now that the holiday season is upon us in full force, chances are you might be noshing on almonds as a snack or using them in your baking. Almonds are a key ingredient in many holiday treats. Did you know that almonds are related to the plum and that these popular nuts were first cultivated in Greece? Almonds are also mentioned frequently in the Bible. It’s thought that Spanish missionaries were responsible for bringing almonds to America, particularly to California where the majority of this country’s almonds are currently grown.

History and folklore aside, more and more people are eating almonds these days for their health benefits. In fact, these nuts pack quite a nutritional wallop. Let’s take a look at what they can do.

Eating almonds has been linked with lowering blood cholesterol levels. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition back in 2003 showed that 25 men and women with normal or mildly high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels who ate a “high-almond diet” (20% of calories coming from almonds) significantly lowered their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and raised their HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels more than those who ate a diet meant to help lower cholesterol that did not include almonds. This improvement in lipid levels corresponded to an 11% decrease in cardiovascular disease—no small feat for such a small nut! Researchers speculate that the cardiovascular benefits of almonds are due to its high monounsaturated fat and vitamin E content.

Almonds may also help you lose weight. Really? That’s what one study, published in 2003 in the International Journal of Obesity claims. In this study, 65 overweight and obese adults (70% of whom had Type 2 diabetes, by the way) were put on a 1,000-calorie liquid diet for 24 weeks. One group also got to eat 3 ounces of almonds (more than 400 extra calories) per day, while the second group got to eat a mixture of carbohydrate-containing foods such as crackers, popcorn, or potatoes instead of the almonds. The almond eaters took in about 40% of calories from fat, whereas the carb eaters got about 20% of calories from fat. The almond eaters lost 18% of their weight compared to the carb eaters who lost 11% of their weight. Waist circumference was smaller in the almond eaters as well. Both groups were able to lower their need for diabetes drugs, but the almond eaters were able to reduce their drug intake by a much greater amount than the carb eaters.

Almonds can be a good snack choice for people trying to lose weight. Some researchers believe that the fat in almonds isn’t fully absorbed, and that almonds can make you feel fuller longer due to their fiber, protein, and fat content.

And speaking of diabetes, a study published just this year in The Journal of Nutrition showed that adding almonds to a carbohydrate-rich meal lowered the body’s glycemic response (rise in blood glucose level) and insulin response. Although this study used subjects who did not have diabetes, the researchers were excited by the findings and also concluded that the lower glycemic response resulting from eating almonds could also possibly lower the risk of heart disease. More good news about almonds!

Before you start gulping down almonds, a few words of caution. Yes, almonds have many benefits and can definitely be part of a healthy eating plan. Keep in mind, though, that almonds, like all nuts, come with a hefty calorie price tag. You might want to try eating about 1½ ounces, or ⅓ cup, of almonds daily. This translates to about 250 calories and 22 grams of (healthy) fat. So go ahead and reap the benefits of almonds, but cut back on calories somewhere else to avoid weight gain.

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