Eating nuts has been shown to have many health benefits, especially when it comes to our heart health. However, nuts are very high in calories, and excess calories are never good for our health. Of course it is always important to adhere to proper portion sizes, but because of their high calorie content, it is especially important when it comes to nuts. A serving of nuts is one-quarter to one-third of a cup, or 1.5 ounces. I like to think of what would fit in the palm of one cupped hand.

What makes nuts so healthy? They are rich in protein and fiber, which help keep you feeling full longer. Fiber has been found to help regulate our GI tract and reduce cholesterol levels. Studies have shown that people who consume more than 5 ounces of nuts per week weigh less than people who do not.

Many studies point to the benefit that consuming nuts reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. One of the most important nutrients in nuts is their fat. Nuts are high in unsaturated fats, which can actually help to reduce our LDL "bad" cholesterol. One type of unsaturated fat in nuts is omega-3 fatty acids; these fatty acids have been shown to reduce irregular heartbeats and reduce inflammation. Saturated fats found in meat and dairy can increase our cholesterol levels. Other fatty acids, such as omega-6 and omega-9 are more pro-inflammatory. The message here is to reduce consumption of saturated fats and use nuts as an alternative to high saturated fat foods that you may be consuming.

I am often asked what nuts are the healthiest, and while nuts do have different nutritional properties, the differences are minimal. Eat the type of nuts that you enjoy the most but be mindful about using nuts that have extras; limit salted and candy coated nuts.

Adding an extra handful of nuts to your daily diet doesn't show much benefit. The key is using nuts to round out meals by adding a beneficial nutrient-dense food in place of a food that may be high in saturated fat or one that is lacking protein.

Remember to keep your portions in check. Use snack bags or small containers to pre-measure portions of nuts. Another trick is to use nuts that are in the shell, and then you will be slowed down by having to crack the nut before consuming it.

At breakfast, add a spoonful of nuts to your cereal or yogurt. If you like hot cereal, such as oatmeal, a spoonful of nut butter can easily be stirred in for some extra flavor. Add nuts to items like pancakes, waffles, muffins and breads. For lunch and dinner, replace salad croutons with nuts for a healthy crunch. Think of making sauces like pesto or Thai peanut for pastas. Nuts can be incorporated into many flavors of stir-fry sauté vegetables and topped with cashews or pecans. Use chopped nuts to coat lean proteins for extra texture and flavor.

Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at dietitian@slhduluth.com.