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Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Nuts are nature's way of showing us that good things come in small packages. These bite-size nutritional powerhouses are packed with heart-healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

From our friends at Health.com, here's a look at the pros and cons of different nuts, as well as the best and worst products on supermarket shelves today. Of course, you can get too much of these good things: Nuts are high in fat and calories, so while a handful can hold you over until dinner, a few more handfuls can ruin your appetite altogether. And although nuts are a healthy choice by themselves, they'll quickly become detrimental to any diet when paired with sugary or salty toppings or mixes.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Macadamias can cause vomiting, tremors, and even depression in dogs. In some cases, even a single handful of the nuts can weaken dogs' hind legs. istockphoto

Worst nuts for your diet

Macadamia Nuts, Pecans

Ounce for ounce, macadamia nuts (10 to 12 nuts; 2 grams protein, 21 grams fat) and pecans (18 to 20 halves; 3 grams protein, 20 grams fat) have the most calories - 200 each - along with the lowest amounts of protein and the highest amounts of fats.

However, they're still good nuts: The difference between these and the lowest calorie nuts is only 40 calories an ounce. As long as you're practicing proper portion control and not downing handfuls at a time, says Caplan, any kind of raw, plain nut will give you a good dose of healthy fats and nutrients.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Carbohydrates can cause high levels of a type of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as bad cholesterol. For a healthier salad, replace your carbo-laden croutons with walnuts, which are high in polyunsaturated fat--a good fat that can lower LDL while boosting HDL (aka good cholesterol).Health.com: The 10 Best Foods for Your Heart istockphoto

Best nuts for your heart

Walnuts

While all nuts contain heart-healthy omega-3 fats, walnuts (14 halves contain 185 calories, 18 grams fat, 4 grams protein) have high amounts of alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Research has suggested that ALA may help heart arrhythmias, and a 2006 Spanish study suggested that walnuts were as effective as olive oil at reducing inflammation and oxidation in the arteries after eating a fatty meal. The authors of this study, funded in part by the California Walnut Commission, recommended eating around eight walnuts a day to achieve similar benefits.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Studies show that the amino acid L-arginine is helpful for improving sexual function in men. L-arginine is used to make nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels. Preliminary studies have found that L-arginine may help with erectile dysfunction. Peanuts are a rich natural source of L-argininie. iStockPhoto

Best nuts for your brain

Peanuts

Technically legumes but generally referred to as nuts, peanuts are high in folate - a mineral essential for brain development that may protect against cognitive decline. (It also makes peanuts a great choice for vegetarians, who can come up short on folate, and pregnant women, who need folate to protect their unborn babies from birth defects, says Caplan.) Like most other nuts, peanuts are also full of brain-boosting healthy fats and vitamin E, as well. One ounce of peanuts (about 28 unshelled nuts) contains about 170 calories, 7 grams protein, and 14 grams fat.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

pecan nuts pecans generic iStockphoto

Best nuts for men

Brazil Nuts, Pecans

Creamy Brazil nuts are packed with selenium, a mineral that may protect against prostate cancer and other diseases. Just one nut contains more than a day's worth, so eat these sparingly: Recent research has hinted that too much selenium may be linked to type 2 diabetes risk. One ounce of Brazil nuts (6 nuts) contains about 190 calories, 19 grams fat, and 4 grams protein.

Pecans are also good for men's health: They're loaded with beta-sitosterol, a plant steroid that may help relieve symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), or enlarged prostate. One ounce of pecans (18 to 20 halves) contains about 200 calories, 21 grams fat, and 3 grams protein.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Best nuts for disease prevention

Almonds

Relatively low in calories, almonds have more calcium than any other nut, making them a great food for overall health. Plus, they are rich in fiber and vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps fight dangerous inflammation and possibly health conditions such as lung cancer and age-related cognitive decline.

Because they're so versatile, almonds are often a favorite among nut eaters: You can buy them raw, toasted, slivered, or coated with a variety of fun flavors, from Wasabi & Soy Sauce to Lime 'n Chili.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Blue Diamond

Best snack packaging for nuts

blue diamond, almondsChoose 100- to 200-calorie packs

Because nuts are so high in calories (and so tasty, to boot!), it's important to practice portion control when eating them as a snack. We love Blue Diamond Almonds 100-calorie snack packs, available in six flavors, including Cinnamon Brown Sugar and Dark Chocolate. Want more variety? Pick up Planters Nutrition Wholesome Nut Mix on-the-go packs, each containing a 200-calorie mix of cashews, almonds, and macadamia nuts. 

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Beer Nuts

Worst snack packaging for nuts

beer nuts party mixAvoid anything in a tub

We're all for buying in bulk to save money and packaging, but it's important not to snack straight from the box (or in this case, the giant tub) when a craving hits. Beer Nuts' "original" formula - peanuts coated with a sweet and salty glaze - aren't a bad choice themselves (170 calories, 14 grams fat, and 2 grams sugar per ounce), but if you're munching on them at a party or during a "long day of game watching," as the company's website suggests, you'll likely be eating more than the recommended serving size. Not to mention, the Party Mix variety also includes M&Ms and sugary yogurt-covered raisins, for an extra calorie boost. A better bet is Beer Nuts' Original Teaser Peanut Sized bags, each containing just half an ounce of nuts.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Emerald Almonds

Best nuts for chocolate lovers

cocoa roast almonds emeraldGo for cocoa-dusted almonds

Rather than hiding your nuts under a thick layer of sugary chocolate candy - think Jordan almonds or peanut M&Ms - keep it simple with Emerald's Cocoa Roast Almonds. These nuts are lightly dusted with cocoa powder and sweetened with Sucralose, and have 150 calories, 13 grams fat, and 1 gram of sugar per ounce.

We'd give you a "worst" nuts for chocolate lovers, but the possibilities are practically endless. Just think of it this way, says Caplan: Anything that's more chocolate than nut really should be considered candy - not as a way to get your daily quota of healthy fats.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Sahale Snacks

Best nuts for your sweet tooth

glazed almonds, sahale snacksTry all-natural glazed nuts

Want something sweet and satisfying but without the extra calories and high-fructose corn syrup? Look no further than Sahale Snacks glazed nuts, in flavors like Almonds with Cranberries, Honey, and Sea Salt (160 calories, 11 grams fat, 5 grams protein per ounce) or Cashews with Pomegranate and Vanilla (150 calories, 10 grams fat, 4 grams protein per ounce). They're sweetened with organic cane juice and tapioca syrup, and each contains only 6 grams of sugar per ounce. Just be careful not to eat the whole bag!

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Worst nuts for your sweet tooth

snickers, king-sized snickers, mars, candy barsCheck labels for sugar content

Just because something has nuts in it doesn't make it good for you, says Caplan: "Don't justify eating a Snickers because it's got peanuts in it." Anything coated with or tucked inside layers of sugar, toffee, chocolate, or ice cream isn't going to give you much nutritional benefit, and the calories can quickly add up, she says.

It's not just candy, though: Beware of seemingly healthful varieties, like Planters Sweet 'N Crunchy Peanuts. Although they still have just 140 calories and 8 grams fat per ounce, the second and third ingredients after peanuts are sugar and butter. In fact, one ounce contains 13 grams of sugar (in just a 28-gram serving size). Considering peanuts only have about 2 grams of sugar naturally, that's 11 grams of added sugar in just one handful, out of a recommended 25 for the whole day!

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Planters

Best nuts for a salt craving

planters slightly salted peanutsLook for 'lightly salted'

If you don't have high blood pressure or haven't been warned away from salt by your doctor for other reasons, a handful or two of salted nuts a day won't hurt you, says Caplan, who has a private nutrition practice in Vienna, Va.

Nuts are, of course, available unsalted. But to satisfy a salty craving without going overboard, look for in-between varieties like Planters Lightly Salted peanuts, almonds, and cashews (45-55 mg sodium), or Wonderful Pistachios Lightly Salted (80 mg). Check ingredient labels, too: Some brands, like Back to Nature Salted Almonds (75 mg sodium), contain less salt than others.

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Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Kar's Nuts

Worst nuts for a salt craving

kars blazin hot nutsSteer clear of BBQ or boiled nuts

If you're watching your sodium intake, watch out for hot and spicy or barbecue flavors too. Kar's Nuts Blazin' Hot Peanuts, for example, contain 370 mg of sodium per ounce (along with 160 calories and 14 grams fat) - a whopping 15% of your daily recommended value, in just one handful!

Beware boiled peanuts, as well: This Southern treat is made by soaking fresh, raw peanuts, in their shells, in a salty brine. Sodium amounts will vary based on the exact preparation, but Margaret Holmes Peanut Patch boiled peanuts, for example, contain 390 mg per ounce.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Best trail mix

trail mix

Raw nuts, seeds, and dried fruit

Trail mix is available in countless varieties and from countless brands. "Look for trail mix with raw nuts," suggests Caplan. "Or if the nuts are roasted, look for the words 'dry roasted' rather than 'oil roasted.'"

Nuts pair great with fruit, seeds, and perhaps even a little dark chocolate, Caplan adds; just pay attention to the calorie count and serving size. We love Eden Foods' "All Mixed Up" blend (160 calories, 12 grams fat, 8 grams protein per ounce) of organic almonds, pumpkin seeds, and dried tart cherries. If you're more of a granola guy or gal, treat yourself to a quarter cup of Bear Naked's Banana Nut mix (140 calories, 7 grams fat, 3 grams protein) with almonds and walnuts.

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Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Worst trail mix

trail mixSave high-calorie mixes for the trail

High-calorie trail mix is fine when you've got a long hike ahead of you, but too often we eat these store-bought blends while sitting at our desks or driving in our cars. Don't make that mistake with Planter's Energy Go-Packs, a 1.5-ounce mix of nuts, semisweet chocolate, oil roasted soynuts, and sesame seeds: With 250 calories and 20 grams of fat a pop, they fall slightly above our healthy snacking guidelines.

Also check labels for sky-high sugar contents: Some trail mixes - especially those with raisins, dried cranberries, and/or candy-covered chocolate pieces - can contain up to 18 grams of sugar per serving.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Best nut butter

Keep ingredients simple

When choosing a nut butter, look for spreads with the fewest ingredients possible: Just nuts (and salt, if you want). Arrowhead Mills Organic Peanut Butter, for example, contains 100% dry-roasted peanuts, and has 190 calories, 17 grams fat, and 8 grams protein per 2 tbsp serving. (We also like their creamy cashew and almond butters, which do contain some natural canola oil.) Keep natural peanut butter in the fridge, advises Caplan, to keep it from going rancid and to prevent oily separation.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

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Worst nut butter

nutellaSkip added oils and sugars

Major brands have eliminated trans fats from their nut butters, but most still contain hydrogenated oils (high in saturated fat) to increase spreadability and prevent separation. Some "natural" product lines swap hydrogenated oils for palm oil, also high in saturated fat. Skippy Natural with Honey, for example, contains 200 calories, 16 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated), and 5 grams sugar per 2-tablespoon serving.

Nutella's creamy chocolate-hazelnut combo is terrific for an occasional treat - but it's hardly part of a "balanced breakfast," as its commercials say. Two tablespoons contain just 200 calories, yes, but 21 grams of sugar. In fact, sugar and palm oil are the product's first ingredients, even before hazelnuts.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

Without a healthy go-to option for each, you're far more likely to make bad spur-of-the-moment grabs. Plus, having a staple of one or two healthy usuals makes grocery shopping easier. "You don't want to reinvent the wheel every day," says Dr. Oz, who starts his day with a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with flaxseed oil, a few walnuts, and some raisins or agave for sweetness. For lunch, Dr. Oz recommends a vegetable-based soup or a turkey or tuna sandwich on whole-grain bread. For the kids, you can improve upon the PBJ sandwich (it's not horrible, but the jelly is all sugar) by using less jelly or turning it into a PB sandwich with a piece of fruit.More from health.com: Secrets to a stress-free, happy, healthy family iStockPhoto

Best way to eat nuts

Pair them with a healthy carb

Now you know all about which nuts are good for what - but to get the most health benefits, it's also important to pay attention to how you eat them. "Nuts are a great thing to eat when you're having a carbohydrate like fruit or juice, because it helps slow down digestion and the breakdown of sugar," says Caplan.

A few winning nut-and-carb combos: Sprinkle them on salads, add them to low- or nonfat yogurt, or spread nut butter on slices of apple or pear. On the go? Pick up a 150-calorie pack of Earthbound Farms Dippin' Doubles Apples & Peanut Butter (11 grams fat, 5 grams protein). 

Nuts about nuts? Best and worst kinds for health

mixed nuts AP

Best nuts overall

A mixed bag!

So which is the healthiest nut overall? A 2004 review in the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide tackled this tough question. Luckily, they concluded, we don't have to pick just one. Mixed nuts, ideally raw and unsalted, provide the best variety of nutrients and antioxidants.

More from Health.com: 10 best foods for your heart

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