Heart-healthy and full of nutrients, nuts are back from banishment. In fact, they're some of our new best friends.
Credit: Howard L. Puckett

Nuts are heroes, not villains, in our diet. And the more research evolves, the more we see how these tasty and plentiful food sources, when eaten in small amounts, work their magic. A few of the likeliest mechanisms include:

Good-Fat Content. Nuts have different amounts of fat, of course, but, roughly speaking, a quarter-cup of any nut contains about 20 grams of fat. The fat in nuts, however, is highly monounsaturated―the same form found in abundance in heart-healthy olive and canola oils. Nuts are also rich in polyunsaturated fat, the other form known to lower cholesterol levels. They contain relatively modest amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat. So the fat you're getting is quite different than the kind found in, say, red meat.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Like mackerel, salmon, and other cold-water fish, nuts tend to be high in omega-3 fatty acids. This complex biomolecule may help reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks.

Nutrient Density. Nuts are jam-packed with micronutrients such as vitamin E, folic acid, niacin, copper, magnesium, and potassium. They're also rich in arginine, which the human body uses to make a potent natural vasodilator. And don't forget the abundant flavonoids and isoflavones―the most recently discovered "guardian angel" compounds now thought to help ward off cancer and cardiovascular disease. Eating a handful of nuts or a nutty muffin is like eating a whole pharmacy―only much tastier.

The bottom line: A healthier diet that includes regular nut-noshing and cooking with nuts―give the recipes below a try―can help improve your cholesterol profile. And despite the high fat content, you could even shed a few pounds―an effect some researchers suggest can be explained by the satiety-inducing effect of nuts, which results in less eating overall.

Strive to be a nut gourmand, not a nut glutton. Enjoy munching them, of course, but using them in dishes like Persian Poached Pears is maybe even a better way to enjoy their flavor and health benefits without getting seduced into overdoing it.