With the holiday season in full swing, no dearth of sweets and treats adorn the hearth. Christmas cookies of dubious design and questionable ingredients (How do they get that bright green frosting color, anyway?); rich and glorious fudge from somebody’s aunt; those sugary, ribbon-shaped sequential delights; high fructose corn syrup candy canes and then there’s the “Omigod-I-can’t-believe-they-sent-us-another-one” rum-soaked fruitcake, pried from the tin and bespeckled with plasticine pebbles of colored what. It’s easy to inhale a couple thousand calories even before the spiked eggnog. The junk-food stress we put on the body during the holidays is enormous: sugar, fat and chemicals.

It’s not crazy. It’s nuts. But believe it or not, even in this splendid season of overindulgence, it’s completely possible to pick the best of the tongue teasers and choose for healthfulness and nutrition over empty calories and who-knows-what ingredients. A great place to start is with the nuts.

Botanically speaking, true nuts are the fruit of the plant order known as Fagales, which includes most common trees. Most the nuts from that group of plants are correctly called tree nuts, including walnuts, chestnuts, pecans and hazelnuts.

When it comes to eating and cooking, though, the term nut is applied to seeds and kernels also. While technically not nuts, we call seeds like almonds, cashews, macadamias, Brazil nuts, pistachios and pine nuts by that misnomer. In fact, the popular peanut isn’t a nut but a legume and seed, closely related to the pea.

Regardless of technicalities, the reason nuts are so nutritious is because they are the kernels of life. For a plant, the nut is like an egg. From a relatively small acorn nut, the mighty oak springs forth. To nurture a seedling, that little nut must be nutrient-dense. So when it comes to a healthy choice of holiday treat, grab your nuts.

Pistachios Penn State researchers found that as little as three ounces a day of pistachios can lower blood pressure significantly. What a tasty way to take care of hypertension. And pistachios have been found to lower cholesterol, too. Using a similar amount of between 1.5 and 3 ounces of pistachios daily, the test subjects maintained a normal diet otherwise and yet they lowered LDL cholesterol without drugs.

The pistachio is native to the Middle East and is now cultivated in California. Legend has it that pistachios mixed with honey can enhance male sexual performance. Mediterranean cuisine often tops a meal with baklava made from those ingredients. With research pointing to improved cardiovascular performance, maybe legend isn’t so mysterious.

Walnuts Walnuts are among the nuts found to contain healthful amounts of omega fatty acids, known to promote healthy heart function. In addition, a Spanish study found that the healthful fats in walnuts actually appear to reverse some of the damage that can be done from “bad” fats. Researchers noted that a handful or two of walnuts at the end of a meal may protect the arteries from saturated fat damage.

James Duke reports that walnuts are used in Turkish folk medicine to treat glandular disorders and that a possible use is the green walnut which seems to combat the lethargy and effects of hypothyroidism. Another possible benefit of a handful of walnuts as a snack is that a major study of 25,000 subjects found that those who ate walnuts regularly were not likely to be overweight. Walnuts are rich in serotonin. That is the “feel good” chemical in the brain that is suspected of making us feel full.

Cashews Cashews are the most popular nut in America though technically they are not a nut but the seed of the cashew apple tree indigenous to Brazil. The cashew shares some of the heart protecting characteristics of other nuts and seeds. It might be a decided option because it is lower in fat than other nuts. Some sources claim that the cashew also promotes healthy gums. Along with the pistachio, it has the highest protein ratio.

Almonds Almonds are indigenous to southwestern Asia so it’s no surprise to find them in ayurvedic medicine. They are used in that ancient system to promote healthy brain and nerve function. In modern research, almonds have been found to have certain cancer-fighting constituents in addition to the expected heart benefits. Almonds’ high level of vitamin E is believed to help with skin problems. There is also the suggestion that the oil present in the almond is slightly aphrodisiac, is highly anti-inflammatory and can protect the liver and intestines. They are a super-source of potassium, magnesium, manganese and other vital minerals.

Sunflower seeds Here is a tip for your heart that you can pick up at any convenience store. The component in nuts and seeds that is believed to lower bad cholesterol is called phytosterol. Of all the nuts typically consumed as a snack food, sunflower seeds have the highest source. Of course, don’t be a ninny and devour too much of the salted version. Try the unsalted, maybe.

Sunflower seeds are also high in magnesium, which can have a relaxing effect on muscles and lower blood pressure. That micronutrient can help prevent muscle cramps. Could that be why they are popular with athletes? Keeping a good balance of magnesium in the body is found to limit asthma attacks also.

Hazelnuts Also called a filbert, the hazelnut has a unique flavor and is loaded with tryptophan. Some people believe a few hazelnuts before bedtime lead to a restful sleep because of that. It’s also 65-70% oil and provides a healthy level of oleic acids, helping to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Filberts are highly anti-inflammatory.

Whichever nuts you choose to grab, they can be a boost to your health and a smart alternative to processed foods as a holiday treat.

Be well.

Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice, and it is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at heartlandhealing.com.

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