Eating as little as three to four handfuls of nuts and seeds a week can decrease the risk of heart disease by around 20 percent, according to new advice issued by the Heart Foundation.
Nuts and seeds make a highly nutritious snack, packed with healthy fats, fibre, protein and a wide range of essential micronutrients.
Consuming nuts and seeds regularly as part of a healthy diet helps to lower the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often referred to as 'bad cholesterol'. High levels of LDL cholesterol can raise a person's risk for both heart disease and stroke.
Too much 'bad' cholesterol can lead to a build-up inside the blood vessels, which are responsible for carrying blood and oxygen around the body. Known as 'plaque', this build-up causes lumps of hard fat to form on the walls of the blood vessels.
As the plaque increases over time, the insides of the vessels can narrow. This narrowing blocks the blood flow to and from the heart and other organs. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, it can cause angina (chest pain) or a heart attack. The plaque itself can also break off and block the artery, leading to a stroke or heart attack.
In Aotearoa, consumption of nuts and seeds is generally low. Data from the last Adult Nutrition Survey suggests that on average, New Zealanders' intake of nuts and seeds is only around a third of the Heart Foundation's recommendation.
The Heart Foundation's national nutrition advisor, Lily Henderson, says the goal is to get more New Zealanders adding nuts and seeds to their diet and incorporating them into everyday meals.
"Making small changes to your diet by regularly including a few handfuls of nuts and seeds has a positive impact on our heart health," she says. "Most of the benefits are seen when we eat up to 15g every day (or three to four handfuls a week), but further heart health benefits are likely with intakes higher than this.
"The great news is, regular intake of these amounts is not only good for us, there's also good evidence from large population studies and clinical trials showing no impact on body weight, which is a common misconception."
To optimise the health benefits nuts and seeds have to offer, Henderson advises that both nuts and seeds should be eaten as close to their natural form as possible - for example, whole, sliced or ground. Nut and seed butters, like peanut butter, almond butter or sunflower seed better, are also a great option - especially compared to other spreads like jam or honey.
With the cost of groceries continuing to increase and many households already stretching their weekly budgets, Henderson says it's helpful to focus on the cheapest options available.
"Peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and flaxseeds are some of the cheapest options per 100g and are just as nutritious when compared to other nuts and seeds," she says.
"Peanut butter is another low-cost way to add nuts into your diet and there are plenty of uses beyond spreading it on toast."
And with a wide selection of peanut butters available on the supermarket shelves, there is a brand to suit every taste and budget.
Here are some tips for including more nuts and seeds in your diet:
- Add them to meals you already eat - the bonus is they add protein to keep you satisfied and extra texture and flavour.
- Nuts and seeds are highly versatile and can be added to breakfasts, lunches and dinners, or eat them as a snack.
- Sprinkle toasted sunflower seeds on top of a salad, add a spoonful of peanut butter in a smoothie or use sesame seeds as a topping for an Asian dish.
- Look for products that include nuts and seeds as a key ingredient, such as cereal, crackers and bread.
- Consider the overall healthiness of the product and choose the least processed options where you can.
It's well known that tree nuts, peanuts and certain seeds can trigger an allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in some people, which can be life-threatening. Always follow the advice of your GP or health professional if you've experienced a reaction to any type of nut or seed.