One of the world’s most popular nuts (though it’s botanically a seed), the almond is a well-loved snack in every corner of the globe. The seed itself comes from the deciduous almond tree, which is native to the Middle East and a few sections of Southern Asia. For thousands of years, humans have recognized the value of a diet that includes the almond.
Evidence suggests that the first domesticated cultivar of the almond tree appeared sometime between 3000 and 2000 years B.C., well before the majority of other agricultural crops. Cultures from the Ancient Egypt to early European tribes used the almond as a form of sustenance.
Little did these ancient cultures know that in addition to keeping them full, almonds were doing quite a bit to preserve their health. It is common knowledge that nuts in general are a valuable source of good nutrition, but almonds separate themselves as the “cream of the crop”, so to speak. Their unique blend of micronutrients and healthy oils has been the subject of considerable medical study, which has yielded very positive results.
The bulk of testing on almonds has been an inquiry into its cardiovascular benefits. As it turns out, there are a great many – with lots of supporting evidence. It seems counterintuitive at first glance, mostly because almonds are relatively high in fat. A single quarter cup serving contains roughly 18 grams of it. But in this case, it is the type of fat that almonds are heavy in that makes all the difference. The three principal types of fat in the human diet are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat. The distinction lies in the carbon-to-carbon atom bonds in the long fatty acid chains that make up dietary fat. Carbon chains with single bonds are classified as saturated fat, and have a generally negative impact when consumed in excess. If there are multiple double bonds in the carbon-to-carbon connections, the fat is defined as polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fat, meanwhile, has a single double bond somewhere in that long chain of molecules. This is the type of fat that almonds are heaviest in, and also happens to be the healthiest form of fat one can consume.
While it’s well known that saturated fat can increase levels of cholesterol, medical evidence supports the notion that monounsaturated fat works in the opposite way. In medical testing that appeared in the British Journal of Nutrition, it was found that those with high levels of LDL (or bad cholesterol) were able to maximize their cholesterol reduction over a two week span with the inclusion of almonds in their diet. The same study suggests that this LDL-lowering effect is magnified when they’re eaten along with a healthy overall diet. An additional test with more specific results found that when almonds are put in place of some saturated animal fats, LDL levels can be lowered by roughly 10% in the average person.
Another constituent of almonds’ molecular makeup that supports heart health is magnesium. When consumed, this mineral acts as a sort of pressure reliever in the cardiovascular system. It allows veins and arteries to lighten up on tightness, in effect allowing the heart to work less hard to pump blood. One serving of almonds has almost 100 milligrams of magnesium, which is nearly a quarter of what one needs daily.
Unlikely as it may be, there is actually a third substance in almonds that is believed to support heart health: vitamin E. Biologically, this vitamin has an antioxidant effect for those who get enough of it daily. By slowing the oxidation process by which harmful “free radical” molecules are formed in the body, almonds’ vitamin E help to prevent cardiovascular disease in general. It is also thought that vitamin E inhibits the collection of blood platelets, which is the chief cause of heart attack.
Though they are relatively high in calories, growing evidence seems to show that almonds may actually help those making an effort to lose excess weight. In one particular weight loss study, two test groups were put on one of two diets with the same amount of calories, but different macronutrient levels. The first group received more calories from carbohydrate sources, and the second received more of their calorie allotment from healthy fat sources – including almonds. After six months, significant differences were found in their progress. The second test group – the one that consumed almonds regularly – lost 7% more weight on average than the carbohydrate-rich test group. Additionally, the almond group lost 5% more from their waist lines, lost 10% more body fat, and lowered their blood pressure significantly more than the carbohydrate group.
As it turns out, almonds aren’t just good at helping people lose weight, they can help prevent weight gain from happening in the first place. One study conducted in Spain tracked nearly 9,000 people over the course of over two years, following their weight fluctuations and their almond consumption. After this lengthy testing period, it was discovered that those who consumed tree nuts such as almonds experienced the significant health benefit of lower weight gain risk. In fact, this group’s chances of gaining 5 kilograms or more over the two year period were roughly a third less than non-nut eaters. It is important to remember that, because almonds are high in calories per ounce at roughly 200, it is easy to consume too many in one sitting. Medical and nutritional experts recommend that you eat them one handful at a time as opposed to busting out the whole package. With a little effort to control amounts, almonds can obviously be a very healthy contribution to a good overall diet.
To put it bluntly, one shouldn’t let the high fat and calorie content prevent them from enjoying almonds. Their monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, and magnesium content make almonds exceptionally good for heart health and body composition, despite what their nutrition facts label might imply at first. When incorporated into a healthy diet regularly, almonds are a truly valuable booster in multiple aspects of human health.
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