Nuts and seeds have been an important part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years. They pack a nutritious punch in a small, versatile package! Eating a handful of nuts or seeds most days is recommended as part of an overall plant-focused diet that may reduce your risk of developing many chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease. Try them raw, toasted or ground, eaten on their own or tossed into sweet or savory recipes.
What Exactly Are Nuts and Seeds?
Most of what we call nuts are — botanically speaking — seeds. Nuts are usually divided into two categories: peanuts (which are seeds in the legume category) and tree nuts (which are the seeds of trees). Tree nuts include walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds and Brazil nuts. Some of these, such as walnuts and cashews, grow inside a fruit, while others, such as hazelnuts and chestnuts, are the fruit and don't open to release a separate seed. On the other hand, the seeds that we actually refer to as seeds come from vegetables (such as pumpkins), flowers (such as sunflowers) or flax and other crops.
Potential Role in Cancer Prevention
Nuts and seeds provide protein, dietary fiber, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are considered heart-healthy. One specific type of polyunsaturated fat called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid that is found in walnuts, chia seeds and ground flax seeds. Different nuts and seeds also contain a variety of different vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E and magnesium.
Studies have found that eating one ounce of peanuts, certain tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios) and/or seeds most days may help reduce the risk of certain cancers, including colorectal, endometrial and pancreatic cancer. This eating habit may also reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Some of the benefits found in these studies are linked specifically to eating nuts and seeds, while some benefits were found in eating nuts and seeds in combination with a healthy lifestyle that includes more physical activity and an overall healthy eating pattern. Eating more than an ounce (about a small handful) each day has not been shown to increase benefits.
Some specific nuts and seeds are being studied for their potential to prevent certain cancers. For example, because of its omega-3 fats and phytochemicals, researchers are investigating whether flaxseed can protect against breast cancer, while compounds in walnuts are being evaluated for their potential role in protecting against cell damage and cancer cell and tumor growth. However, no single compound or specific type of food will prevent cancer, so it’s best to eat a variety of nuts and seeds.
- Store nuts and seeds in a cool, dark place and refrigerate or freeze them if you don’t eat them within a few weeks. They can become rancid due to their fat content.
- Roast or lightly toast nuts and seeds to enhance the flavor.
Keep portion size in mind. A serving of nuts is one ounce, or about ¼ cup. One ounce of nuts is about 23 almonds, 18 cashews, 14 walnut halves, 49 pistachios or 19 pecan halves. Due to the fat content, nuts are calorie dense, so large portions can add up to excess calories. Try replacing high-calorie foods such as chips or candy with nuts or seeds. Nuts and seeds are tasty on their own; as additions to main dishes, sauces, or soups; or as toppings for a dessert. Here are some ideas for including more nuts and seeds in your diet.
Healthy Eating Tips
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- Chia seeds, ground flax, walnuts, slivered almonds or even nut butters all make great add-ins for oatmeal, yogurt, and cereal.
- Toast whole-grain bread and choose from toppings like these:
- Nut butter and berries
- Mashed avocado, lemon and pumpkin seeds
- Cottage cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflower seeds
- Ricotta cheese, basil, strawberries, sliced almonds
- Try this whole-grain banana bread packed with almonds, walnuts, pistachios and sunflower seeds
- Roasted, seasoned nuts, such as Maple Cayenne Pecans
- Homemade trail mix (such as this Walnut Snack Mix), portioned out in containers ahead of time for a grab-and-go option
- Nut butters spread on apple slices or whole-grain crackers
- Sprinkle nuts or seeds on top of a stir-fry just before serving, or add them at the last minute to toast lightly.
- Use sesame seeds to crust fish fillets, or try these almond-crusted baked chicken tenders.
Soups, Salads & Sides
- Top your favorite salad with nuts or seeds, or try one of these recipes: Arugula Salad with Kiwi, Strawberries, and Pecans; Brussels Sprout Apple Slaw with Cranberries and Walnuts; Beet Salad with Peaches and Walnuts; or Kale, Butternut Squash, and Pomegranate Salad
- Toss into vegetable dishes, pasta or other whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa: Broccoli with Scallion Dressing and Hazelnuts; Whole Wheat Pasta with Ricotta, Roasted Garlic, and Walnuts; Millet with Mushrooms and Pumpkin Seeds
- Try adding pumpkin seeds to butternut squash soup or Sweet Potato Chili with Peanuts.