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Go nuts! (In moderation)

Do you enjoy nibbling on nuts but worry about the fat and calories you're picking up? Nuts do carry their share of fat and calories. In every ounce of nuts you consume, you can expect to take in 165 to 200 calories - 75 percent to 95 percent of which comes from fat. And an ounce of nuts is only a couple of tablespoons, not even a small handful. In terms of actual nuts, an ounce equals eight Brazil nuts, 12 macadamia nuts, 20 mixed nuts or 25 roasted almonds.

The good news is that nuts also are chocked full of important nutrients. They're a significant source of protein, making them an alternative to meat in the Food Guide Pyramid. Nuts also are rich in important minerals such as copper, magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium. Almonds, for example, provide 8 percent of the Daily Value for calcium per ounce. Walnuts and hazelnuts each provide 20 percent of the Daily Value of copper. In addition, certain kinds of nuts, such as almonds, chestnuts and pistachios, are considered good sources of fiber.

What's making nutritionists take note of nuts today, however, is their antioxidant and phytochemical properties. Brazil nuts, for example, are rich in selenium. Almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts are excellent sources of vitamin E. Both nutrients are considered important antioxidants in the fight against heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. As plant foods, nuts also contain a number of important phytochemicals, including flavonoids, indoles, phenolic acid and plant sterols.

While more research is needed to fully understand the role of nuts in promoting heart health, enough is known that the Food and Drug Administration now allows producers of almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts to make the claim on package labels that eating 1 1/2 ounces of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Still, as with all foods, moderation is important. A handful of nuts a day may be good for your heart, but 10 to 20 handfuls can be too much of a good thing, promoting weight gain and eventually over-taxing your heart.

When purchasing whole, unshelled nuts, look for clean shells without cracks. Whole, raw shelled nuts should appear relatively uniform in color and size. Nuts keep best in their shells. Because of their high fat content, nuts can turn rancid quickly. For best protection of quality, store nuts in a cool, dry place in sealed plastic bags or in tightly closed containers. Nuts keep well up to a month in the pantry. For longer storage, it's best to refrigerate or freeze nuts.

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