Nuts are big in nutrition right now. We hear a lot about how great almonds, walnuts, and even pistachios are for us. Pecans are usually relegated to the back of the line. But not anymore. March 25 was National Pecan Day (also International Waffle Day, but we won’t go there), although National Pecan Month is in April. I guess it means you get two opportunities to celebrate pecans!
A Bit of Pecan History
Pecans belong to the hickory family and are the only native American tree nut. The word “pecan” is a Native American word that means “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.” That would be about right since these nuts can be tricky to crack open. The first US plantings of pecans happened on Long Island in 1772. Our friends George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had pecan trees in their gardens. The pecan industry blossomed in the early 1800’s but really took off in the 1880’s in Louisiana and Texas, thanks to grafting techniques. Pecans have since grown in popularity and in 2007, more than 400 million pounds of pecans were produced.
As with most nuts, pecans can definitely be part of your eating plan (unless you’re allergic, of course). Here’s the low-down on what they have to offer:
- Fat. Yes, pecans are high in fat. But more than 90% of the fat in these nuts is unsaturated fat (remember, this is the good kind of fat that can help to lower LDL ["bad"] cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease). One ounce of pecans, which is about 20 pecan halves, contains 196 calories, 3.9 grams of carbohydrate, 20.4 grams of fat, 1.8 grams of saturated fat, and 0 milligrams of sodium (yes, no sodium, folks!).
- Vitamin E. Pecans are rich in vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin that also acts like an antioxidant, preventing free radical damage to cell membranes.
- Antioxidants. Pecans rank the highest of all the nuts in terms of their antioxidant content (translation: eating pecans can help you fight off heart disease and some types of cancer).
- Plant sterols. Remember plant sterols? They’re cousins of cholesterol, and they can help lower blood cholesterol levels. Pecans are a great source of these.
- Minerals and other vitamins. Pecans are a good source of several minerals, including potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and iron, as well as the B vitamins.
What the Research Says
OK, so pecans are full of good nutrition. But why would you want to eat these nuts over, say, walnuts or almonds? You don’t really have to choose one nut over the other, since they all offer health benefits. The point is to eat a variety of nuts. The information on pecans is “evidenced-based,” meaning that these nuts have proven health benefits, including:
- Cholesterol-lowering. A 2001 Loma Linda University study found that adding a handful of pecans to a cholesterol-lowering diet helped to boost the diet’s effectiveness, lowering total and LDL cholesterol twice as much as following an American Heart Association Step 1 cholesterol-lowering diet (without the nuts). Also, pecans helped to lower triglycerides (blood fats) and didn’t lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Lower risk of heart disease. Lowering blood lipid levels is one way to lower heart disease risk. Other factors play a role in the development and prevention of heart disease, too. I mentioned earlier that pecans are practically off the charts in terms of their antioxidant content. Pecans were fed to people following a cholesterol-lowering diet. Other people followed the cholesterol-lowering diet without the nuts. After four weeks, the nut eaters had a 7.4% reduction in lipid oxidation (this is when harmful free radicals cause cell damage which can eventually lead to heart disease and other problems).
- Boosting brain health. Eating a handful of pecans every day may protect you from developing motor neuron degeneration (which can lead to diseases such as Lou Gehrig disease). This research comes from studying mice that were either fed a diet supplemented with pecans or without pecans. The mice that ate the pecans did much better in terms of motor function than the non-pecan-eaters.
- Weight loss. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating: adding nuts (including pecans) to your eating plan can help with weight loss, according to research. Eating nuts help to make you feel fuller and may even help to boost your metabolism a little.
I could go on, but I think you probably get the message: Eating pecans is good for you!
Placing Pecans Your Meal Plan
- Stir chopped pecans into your morning cereal.
- Mix pecans and raisins into Greek-style yogurt for a power-packed protein snack.
- Serve up a baby spinach salad with mandarin oranges and pecan halves.
- Combine pecan pieces and breadcrumbs in a food processor along with your favorite seasonings. Pulse for a minute. Dip chicken breasts into a beaten up egg and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then dredge the breasts in the pecan-breadcrumb mixture. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 375˚F for 15–30 minutes.