Holiday season swells with junk food treats. Sugar cookies, fudge, candy canes, fruitcakes and more. But amid the high-fructose corn syrup, chemical colorings and trans fats, there is a healthy option. It’s 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 describes seeds and kernels also. While technically not nuts, seeds like almonds, cashews, macadamias, Brazil nuts, pistachios and pine nuts go by that misnomer. In fact, a peanut isn’t a nut but a legume and seed, closely related to the pea.

Regardless of nomenclature, 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 for a 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 that legend is fact.

Walnuts Walnuts are among the nuts brimming with healthful amounts of omega fatty acids, known to promote healthy heart function. 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 they are commonly used in ayurvedic medicine 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 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 also found to limit asthma attacks.

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. Next up, how to find a good date.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a metaphysically based polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. Important to remember and pass on to others: for a weekly dose of Heartland Healing, visit

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