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Versatile almonds a link to heart health

Almonds are surely one of the most versatile foods in the world. In the whole, slivered or sliced form, the nut enhances everything from salads and meats to granola, baked goods and trail mixes, and in addition it can be processed into almond butter and almond milk. Fortunately, this delicately flavoured nut is available year-round to add not only taste and texture to our meals but also significant health benefits.

It is common knowledge that nuts of various types are high in fat. This is the reason that some people avoid eating them, which is a big mistake since nuts have many positive attributes—and one of them, ironically, is linked to fat content. Let's consider almonds as an example.

When assessing fat in foods, it is important to differentiate between “healthy” and “not so healthy” types. The kind of fat consumers should be careful of are saturated fats found in animal products and trans fats created when various types of foods are processed, one prime example being the solidification of vegetable oil into margarine and shortening. Almonds are high in monounsaturated fats (such as found in olive oil) associated with reduced risk of heart disease.

Almonds contain no cholesterol, but rather plant sterols or phytosterols which serve to lower serum cholesterol, in particular LDL (the “bad” type that has been linked to arteriosclerosis). It should be noted that almonds' ability to reduce heart disease is also partly due to its content of vitamin E which has an antioxidant effect (binding free radicals to keep them from damaging cells, implicated in cancer and aging).

Improves blood flow

Two other nutrients found in almonds that have a role in keeping the cardiovascular system healthy are magnesium which helps improve the flow of blood and potassium, an important electrolyte involved in the contraction of muscles, including the heart.

Almonds also contain riboflavin (vitamin B2) which plays an important role in the body's energy production. More help with producing energy efficiently comes from the presence of minerals such as manganese and copper—so-called “trace minerals” but necessary for vibrant health.

Another rather surprising health benefit of almonds is the ability to lessen after-meal surges in blood sugar due in part to its low glycemic index. This indicates protection against hyperglycemia and even diabetes.
All this being said, no matter how healthy a food is, if it is high in fat it will be packed with calories and thus should be ingested with discretion. Sprinkle almonds on salads, curried vegetables or yogurt, and include them in muffins, coffee cakes or quick breads. Almonds out of hand make a great snack, but keep in mind that one-quarter cup has just over 200 calories. And of course, people with a tree nut allergy should avoid almonds or risk from mild to severe reactions including rash and swelling of the mouth and throat.

Two other ways of tapping into the nutritional benefits of almonds are by using almond milk and almond butter. Almond milk—made by soaking finely ground almonds in water—is a beverage commonly used as a milk substitute, especially when people are lactose intolerant. However, it has been used for centuries by folks who simply preferred the taste to dairy milk, and it also has the advantage of having a long shelf life.

Different products

So, is almond milk nutritionally superior to dairy milk? Let's put it this way: they are two different products each with their specific health benefits. Almond milk has the same nutrients almonds do, but of course in a much less dense form, and is it fairly low in fat and calories because of the high water content. Milk is high in protein and an excellent source of calcium (as well as good sources of vitamins A and D because of fortification). It contains saturated fat, however, so it is a good idea for older children and adults to use reduced fat versions. While almond milk is a boon for those who are lactose intolerant, it is not safe for individuals with tree nut allergies, and should never be used in place of dairy milk in feeding infants.

Nutrient-rich almond butter—found in health food stores and some supermarkets—is a wonderful substitute for peanut butter in cases where kids have a peanut allergy. However, almost anyone will enjoy this tasty spread on toast or bagels or stuffed into celery sticks. Again, it is high in fat so eat in moderation.