Studies have shown that people who eat nuts, reduce red meat consumption and get adequate amounts of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and other healthful foods have a lower risk of heart disease. (istock)

Q: I’ve heard I should eat more nuts, but I’m confused about which nuts are most healthful. And how often I should eat them?

A: Yes, the noise about nuts’ nutritional attributes is louder than ever, and they’re available in a growing array of flavors, portions and locations. Spot them in single on-the-go servings in convenience stores or occupying an ever-growing berth of supermarket shelf space. Find them in flavors we’re used to seeing on bags of snack foods – salt and vinegar, chili lime and today’s “in” flavor, sriracha. So do nuts’ nutritional assets live up to the industry hype?

Nuts and their nutrition

Tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Agriculture Department, one-third of the nuts we eat are tree nuts. Peanuts, which grow in the ground and are legumes, make up the other two-thirds.

According to the latest What We Eat in America survey, conducted by USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans eat, on average, three-quarters of an ounce of nuts and seeds each day.

In a nutshell (you knew that was coming), nuts offer a bounty of nutrients, especially when you compare their nutrition facts with those of other high-fat snack foods. The bulk of calories in all nuts are from fat. This, along with ample protein, makes them satiating.

More good news: “The fat in nuts is mainly unsaturated fats, both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, the fats experts recommend for heart-healthy eating,” Karen Collins, a registered dietitian and nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research, told me in an e-mail. Nuts contain minimal saturated fat and no trans fat or cholesterol.

Walnuts are the one nut to call out for their omega-3 fats, a type of polyunsaturated fats. Walnut promoters point to this because it’s one of the few plant-based sources of omega-3s.

Each ounce of nuts (the amount the FDA makes manufacturers use in nutrition labeling) contains a few grams of carbohydrates and fiber. Sodium is next to nil for unflavored varieties. Salted nuts and those with other added seasonings boost the sodium count to about 200 milligrams per ounce.

Digging in deeper, nuts provide a good source of magnesium, which we don’t eat enough of, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report. “They can supply natural plant compounds, called phytochemicals, like polyphenols, which seem to boost body antioxidant defenses and are being studied for their potential of additional direct cancer-protective effects,” Collins wrote in the e-mail.

Research and recommendations

Studies have shown that people who eat nuts, reduce red meat consumption and get adequate amounts of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and other healthful foods have a lower risk of heart disease.

The 2015 DGAC report highlights several healthful eating patterns that Americans can follow to meet their nutrition recommendations. All contain nuts. The “Healthy U.S.-Style” eating pattern recommends two to six ounces of nuts, seeds and soy-containing foods each week, based on the calories you need.

Bottom line: Americans, on average, eat enough nuts, but we should get more of them in their natural form and in nut butters rather than in candy and cookies. And sure, you can eat more nuts than the amount recommended, but do so within your nutritional needs.

Collins cautions: Despite nuts’ health halo, don’t forget they pack a wallop of calories. Getting to or maintaining a healthy weight plays an important role in reducing risk for cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Practice portion control, and instead of adding nuts to your diet, substitute them for less healthful foods or animal-based protein sources. Example: Use peanut butter in a sandwich instead of one stuffed with meat. You’ll eat less saturated fat and cholesterol. But don’t slather on peanut butter. It has nearly 200 calories per two-tablespoon serving.

The nut wars

With research in hand, nut growers market their nut as the most nutritious. My mother selected almonds over other nuts because “they’re the healthiest.” (That is, before I set her straight.) Have you bought into the marketing hype?

When you compare their nutrition facts, differences are minor. Beyond the protein and healthful fats, each type of nut can boast a particular nutritional attribute. Choose the nuts you like. Want a variety for the array of nutrients? Then eat mixed nuts. Containers of mixed nuts range from the plenty-of-peanuts lower-cost varieties to deluxe mixes with few or no peanuts).

Tips to nosh nuts wisely

Nuts are portable, nonperishable, satiating and healthful. Use these tips to fit them into a healthful eating pattern without, well, going nuts.

●Keep chopped and toasted nuts on hand. Toasting nuts accentuates their flavor.

●Buy nuts in bulk to save bucks. Control portions by measuring out a quarter-cup (about 1 ounce) and place them in reusable containers.

●Purchase the peanut butter you enjoy, whether creamy or crunchy, mainstream or natural. The couple of grams of added sugars in some peanut butters (even so-called natural) is miniscule.

●Top salads with nuts instead of croutons or bacon bits.

●Use ground nuts instead of breading for fish.

●Sprinkle nuts on cold or hot cereal.

●Spread peanut butter or other nut butters on slices of apples or bananas, or on whole-grain toast.

●Make trail mix with your favorite nuts and dried fruit.

Read more from Wellness:

Dandelion greens are so much more than weeds

‘No sugar added’? ‘Whole grain’? Food labels may not mean what you think they do.

Takeout can be healthful with these menu picks

Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by American Diabetes Association, including “Eat Out Eat Well: The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant,” and the blog EatHealthyLiveWell found on her Web site, www.hopewarshaw.com.

Have a nutrition question? Send an e-mail to localliving@washpost.com. Put “Nutrition Q&A” in the subject line
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Nutritional comparison (per ounce)
Pieces per ounce Calories Fat (g) Saturated fat (g) Monoun-saturated fat (g) Polyun-saturated fat (g) Omega-6-fats (g) Omega-3-fats (g) Fiber (g)
Almond 23 160 14 1 9 3.5 3.5 0 1
Cashew 18 160 13 3 8 2 2 0 1
Macadamia 10-12 200 22 3.5 17 0.5 0.5 0 2
Pecan 19 200 20 2 12 6 6 0.5 3
Pistachio 49 160 13 1.5 7 4 3.5 0 3
Walnut 14 halves 190 18 1.5 3.5 2.5 11 2.5 2
Peanut 30 160 14 2 7 4 N/A N/A 2.4
Peanut butter* 2 T 188 16 3 7 4 N/A N/A 2

Data for all tree nuts from the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research & Education Foundation. Nutrition information is for unsalted, unroasted nuts; macadamias and pistachios are dry roasted. Data for peanuts and peanut butter from USDA National Nutrient Database.

*Information based on average from several products.

N/A: information not available.