Functional Foods – Nuts

Nuts are one of the functional foods that are one of the high potassium foods. People frequently avoid them because of their high fat content. But the type of fats they contain is one of the main contributions to their favorable health effects. The fats they contain are mostly healthy fats. The exception is coconut, which has a high saturated fat content.

Nuts and seeds (996x563)
Some Nutritional Components Of Nuts

Nuts Have A Great Potassium Sodium Ratio

The high potassium content of the various nuts contributes to their blood pressure lowering effect. Additionally, the high potassium content reduces the chance of osteoporosis. The potassium to sodium ratio reaches 1025 at the high end in unsalted nuts. These high ratios reduce aldosterone secretion by the adrenal glands. And this results in more excretion of potassium and less excretion of sodium and calcium.

Favorable Effects Beyond Potassium

But many of the favorable effects on the heart and blood vessels may be from the fats that the nuts contain or from the phytochemicals. Coconuts have mostly saturated fat, so they are not as healthy as other nuts or legumes. Walnuts have a large percentage of their calories in the form of polyunsaturated fat. Macadamia nuts have a large percentage of calories from monounsaturated fat. Others have variable percentages of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat.

Saturated fat has been shown repeatedly to contribute to atherosclerosis, producing plaque in blood vessels. In the coronary vessels this leads to myocardial ischemia and infarction (heart attack). But polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats reduce plaque formation. And this means less chance of peripheral vascular disease, heart attack and stroke.

The healthy components nuts contain include omega 3 fats, soluble fiber, polyphenols and flavonoids. Although these components are believed to have favorable effects on health, it has been difficult to show the benefit. The studies that isolated some of these components had variable results with some showing favorable effects, some showing no effect, and some showing unfavorable effects.

But in many studies, the mono and polyunsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL, as does soluble fiber. And the polyphenols lower free radicals and inflammation through their antioxidant activity, both direct and indirect as discussed in a prior post. Additionally, nuts help vascular dilatation and reduce hypertension. We have discussed several papers showing benefits from the type of fats in nuts and from the phytochemicals they contain.

Whole Nuts Are Better

Researchers have shown that the nuts themselves have the favorable effects. Nuts have been one of the leading food groups to have multiple favorable health reports. And the concern about weight gain from the high percentage of fat in nuts is unfounded. You can even include nuts successfully in a weight loss program.

By acting through several pathways, nuts influence the body's physiology. For instance, when researchers give a single component, such as isolated vitamin E, it affects only one or a few pathways. But giving all the components of intact food affects multiple pathways in a synergistic fashion.

Furthermore, combining multiple food groups that have functional effects brings about significant changes in the body's metabolism. Using one component of a food is like using a garden hose to put out a house fire. Using the entire food is like a fireman's hose. And using foods from multiple food groups is like using multiple fireman's hoses.

For tables of the high potassium foods in different food groups, click the “Links to Food Potassium Tables” tab above for links to the table you are interested in.

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