To live a longer, healthier life, the new Dietary Guidelines say Americans should vary their choices of protein “with more fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.” For the average person, that means eating about 5½ servings from the “meat and beans” category each day. Pecans and other nuts are included in this category because of their high concentration of important nutrients and proteins. One serving of pecans (20 to 30 pecan halves) is the same as eating 2 ounces of meat (or 6 thin slices of ham) but with less saturated fat and no cholesterol. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), unveiled this week a revised food pyramid to illustrate the importance of eating a variety of foods, including healthful fat, including nuts and olive oil, and for limiting foods with added sugar, saturated fat and trans fatty acids. The new icon, named My Pyramid Food Guidance System, is based on the 2005 U. S. Dietary Guidelines, which were released in January and represents the latest science available on the role of diet and nutrition in a healthy lifestyle.

Pecans: Good for Your Heart

The guidelines advise Americans to keep total fat intake within 20-35 percent of calories, with fish, nuts and vegetables oils – foods that are rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids – serving as the major source. Over 90% of the fat in pecans is unsaturated, heart-healthy fat. Numerous studies suggest that nuts protect the heart from disease, according to officials from the National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA).

“One of the reasons nuts, including pecans, are getting notice is their excellent protein structure. They make ideal heart-healthy substitutes for high-fat meats,” says Kimberly Lummus, a registered dietitian with NPSA. “Research shows that eating a more plant-based diet that replaces animal proteins with plant proteins decreases the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, “ says Lummus.

In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration released one of the first qualified health claims about nuts and heart disease; “scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Pecans: Good for Your Waistline

Pecans: Good for Your Waistline

The key to better overall diet is calorie and portion control, according to the updated Guidelines. To manage weight and increase physical fitness, consumers can make the most of their calories by picking nutrient-dense foods.

“Although nuts are high in calories, they are also rich in vitamins and minerals packing a lot of nutrition into a relatively small bundle,” says Lummus. “Just a handful (or about 20 pecan halves) offers vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, fiber, and more antioxidants than any other nut. And because nuts are so rich in heart-healthy fat, it doesn’t take many to feel full.” According to Lummus, studies suggest that eating nuts has a beneficial effect on the waistline. She sites the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study and the Seventh Day Adventist Study which saw body weights lower among those participants who ate more nuts in their diet.

Pecans in particular have an extra health benefit. They contain more antioxidants than any other nut, according to a recent report published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. Not only do pecans rank highest among nuts as a source of antioxidants, they rank 14th among all high antioxidant foods, such as blueberries. Antioxidants are substances found in foods that protect against cell damage and, studies have shown, can help fight diseases like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer.

“Americans should take these guidelines to heart and eat a nutritionally balanced and antioxidant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts like pecans, seeds, legumes and whole grains,” says Lummus.