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Health Tips - Go Nuts

Go Nuts!

No longer forbidden, nuts pack a healthy punch to help you achieve your bodybuilding gains.

By Christie Knudsen, MS

Ask a dozen bodybuilders to write down the essential components of a healthy, performance-enhancing diet, and it's unlikely even one would include nuts on his or her list. Long considered too full of fat and calories, peanuts, almonds, walnuts and other nuts have been shunned by most bodybuilders. But new research indicates that you could train harder, recover faster and experience significant health benefits by downing a handful each day.

Nuts are packed with bodybuilding nutrients including essential vitamins, performance-enhancing minerals and disease-fighting compounds called phytochemicals. In addition to providing some protein, nuts contain beneficial fats that can protect the brain and heart, and may even aid dieters.

Packed with Nutrients

Calorie for calorie, nuts aren't a great source of protein compared to, say, tuna or turkey. For vegetarians and people trying to eat less meat, however, peanuts (which are actually a legume like kidney beans and lentils) and nuts -- especially black walnuts, almonds and pine nuts -- are a pretty good alternative to animal protein.

Yet nuts and peanuts are deficient in the essential amino acid lysine, though vegetarians using them as a protein source can offset this deficiency by combining them with lysine-rich beans or soy. Furthermore, nuts and peanuts are rich sources of the amino acid arginine, a precursor of nitric oxide.

"Nitric oxide increases blood flow to the heart, relaxes arteries and helps inhibit blood clotting, so it may reduce the risk of a heart attack," says Gene Spiller, director of the Health Research and Studies Center in Los Altos, California, and author of Healthy Nuts (Avery; January 2000).

Although green vegetables are richest in vitamins and minerals per calorie, nuts are a good source of some key vitamins. "Few foods provide as much Vitamin E as almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and peanuts," Spiller notes. "A powerful antioxidant, Vitamin E prevents oxidation [oxygen-induced damage] of blood cholesterol. In fact, there's a correlation between high Vitamin E intake and reduced risk of heart disease."

By protecting tissues from the damaging effects of oxygen, Vitamin E may also speed postworkout recovery, fight cancer and protect eyes.

Peanuts are a good source of folate, a vitamin necessary for cell division and making DNA, the blueprint of a cell. "Consuming enough folate also reduces blood levels of homocysteine, a compound linked to cardiovascular disease," says Spiller. What's more, women who eat adequate folate just before and during pregnancy can reduce their babies' risk of brain and spinal-cord birth defects.

In addition to folate, peanuts are a good source of niacin (Vitamin B3) and thiamin (Vitamin B1). Brazil nuts, pine nuts and pistachios are other decent sources of thiamin. Pine nuts are also rich in niacin, as are almonds. Working together, the B vitamins play essential roles in converting dietary carbohydrates, protein and fat into energy.

Don’t Forget Your Minerals

A handful (about one-quarter cup) of Brazil nuts and cashews supplies more than 30% of your daily requirement for copper, an important but rarely discussed mineral. Copper is a component of many proteins and enzymes involved in generating energy, and it's necessary for nerves to function properly. Copper may also protect the heart, according to an analysis of the Seventh-Day Adventist study by Leslie Klevay, MD, a nutritionist with the USDA.1 In the Adventist study, composed of 31,200 volunteers including some meat eaters, people who ate nuts daily decreased their risk of heart disease by 50%.

Almonds, cashews and pine nuts are on a very short list of foods that naturally supply significant amounts of magnesium. A mineral most Americans don't consume enough of, magnesium is necessary for strong bones, the function of many enzymes and, of particular interest to bodybuilders, it's crucial for working muscles. It can also lower blood pressure in some people and may help migraine sufferers reduce the number of attacks they experience.

Black walnuts, pecans and pine nuts are a great source of manganese, another rarely discussed mineral. Manganese's name is derived from a Greek word for magic, which is appropriate given its wide range of functions in the body including fortifying bone and serving as an antioxidant. Bodybuilders should make sure they consume adequate manganese daily because a deficiency can cause impaired growth and reproduction, swollen and enlarged joints, and problems making and using carbohydrates and fats.

Almonds, pistachios and chestnuts provide significant amounts of potassium, an electrolyte that plays a crucial role in water balance and helps maintain normal blood pressure, all key functions especially when you're exercising.

Brazil nuts provide a respectable amount of potassium, although their forte is selenium. "They're grown in selenium-rich soil in the Amazon," Spiller explains. "Selenium may reduce the risk of cancer, possibly by serving as an antioxidant."

In addition, adequate selenium intake promotes fertility in both men and women, although the reason is unclear. Don't overdo selenium. Experts recommend taking no more than 200 mcg daily.

Brazil nuts are also a good source of zinc, another mineral associated with fertility. Other key roles for zinc include fortifying the immune system and ensuring adequate growth and taste perception.

A Good Source of Phytochemicals

Taken from the Greek word phyto (for plant), phytochemicals are thought to be responsible for the finding in study after study that eating a plant-based diet (one in which grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts supply most of the calories) fends off cancer, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Dozens of phytochemicals exist, some of which exist in significant amounts in nuts. Found in walnuts and pecans, a phytochemical called ellagic acid was discovered to reduce tumor growth and protect against DNA damage inside cells in laboratory tests.

Another promising phytochemical is resveratrol, found in abundance in peanuts (as well as red grapes and red wine). Resveratrol protects plants from disease and may do the same for humans. Studies suggest that it can reduce damage to the heart's arteries and help stop dangerous blood clots from causing heart attacks and strokes. Resveratrol can also reduce the risk of cancer in animals.

Striking Oil

Though nuts (except chestnuts) are loaded with oil, you can take comfort in knowing that the fat in almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts and pistachio nuts is mostly monounsaturated. (The oil in coconuts is mostly saturated fat, which can be bad for heart health.)

Spiller says, "The monounsaturated oils in these nuts protect against heart disease and stroke by helping keep 'good' HDL-cholesterol levels stable while lowering 'bad' LDL-cholesterol and blood fats called triglycerides." In fact, new research strongly suggests that diets high in monounsaturated fats (like the Mediterranean diet) offer more protection against heart disease and stroke than low-fat diets.

Walnuts (both black and English) deserve special mention because they have one of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fats of any plant food. A group of essential (and polyunsaturated) fats, omega-3s (linolenic, eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic fatty acids) have been shown to help protect against heart attacks by reducing blood clots and preventing dangerous disturbances of the heart's rhythm.

Additional data suggest omega-3s can help combat symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and depression -- conditions affecting millions of Americans. Of particular interest to bodybuilders is evidence that omega-3s can reduce joint inflammation and provide fuel for lifting.

Eat Nuts to Lose Weight

Given that they're full of fat and calories, you'd think nuts would be a dieter's worst enemy. But the truth, say Spiller and other experts, is just the opposite: Eating nuts (about one-fourth to one-half cup daily) may actually aid weight loss. Why? Precisely because they're high in fat, which slows digestion, curbs the appetite and minimizes feelings of deprivation, thereby helping people stick to their dietary goals.

In one study (supported by the nut, peanut and olive oil industries) at Harvard Medical School, researchers put 101 volunteers on one of two diets with equal numbers of calories. Half of the subjects received 20% of their calories from fat, while the other half received 35% from fat (mostly monounsaturated fat from nuts, peanuts and olive oil).

People in both diet groups lost an average of 10 pounds over a 12-month period. But after 18 months, the people eating the nut-, peanut- and olive oil-rich 35%-fat diet were much more likely to have kept the weight off (their blood pressure fell more than the other group's, too).

"We think that one reason the nuts and olive-oil group had greater success in maintaining weight loss was the increase in flavor and variety that these foods contributed to the diet," says Kathy McManus, MS, RD, lead investigator of the study. "In fact, we found that subjects in this group were significantly more interested in participating and complying throughout the study."

Researchers at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana), investigating why nuts may aid weight loss, gave volunteers a variety of snacks. Both men and women reported feeling full and satisfied longer when they ate peanuts, peanut butter and other calorie-dense snacks than when they ate low-calorie snacks such as rice cakes and pickles.

What's more, when people munched on peanuts, they unconsciously ate less during the following 24 hours. Studies show that people who regularly eat almonds feel full quickly and unconsciously adjust their caloric intakes, too, says Spiller. And what applies to peanuts and almonds probably applies to other nuts.

Daily Nut Consumption

A recent study demonstrated that about 3 million Americans (approximately 1.1% of the population) are allergic to peanuts, nuts or both, points out Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of The Food Allergy Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and education about food allergy. "Peanuts and tree nuts are the leading cause of severe or fatal food-allergic reactions," she says.

"Anyone who serves food to others should be aware of the potential seriousness of food-allergic reactions and make every effort to disclose the ingredients in foods they serve." She adds that individuals with an allergy should keep epinephrine, the medication of choice for managing a severe reaction, with them at all times.

If you're among the other 98.9% of the population who can enjoy nuts, start eating! A small serving daily (about one-fourth cup) offers bodybuilders significant amounts of performance-enhancing nutrients, including vitamins to turn food into fuel, minerals that promote healthy joints and fortify working muscles, and antioxidants that speed postworkout recovery and reduce the damaging effects of oxygen.

In addition to protein, nuts are also a great source of phytochemicals and monounsaturated fats to protect the heart -- your most important muscle -- and prevent stroke and cancer. And as part of a healthy diet, nuts may help you shed unwanted pounds for good.

How To Eat More Nuts

For maximum health benefits, eat 1 ounce (about one-fourth cup shelled) of raw, roasted or toasted nuts daily. To get your daily dose, sprinkle nuts on cereal, main dishes, salads and vegetables; mix them into soups, breads and muffins; or carry small amounts in your workout bag for easy refueling. Minimize consumption of salted nuts if you have high blood pressure.