Pass the Pecans, Please!

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.

Pecan Power
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.

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  • Moe

    Hello Amy:

    Thank you for the work you do at Joslin. I ended up there in the teaching unit as a new Type 1 diabetic while in my last year at BC in 1965. It’s a great organization and I learned a lot in the week I was there about diet, etc. At that time I was also dating someone from Simmons at the time :>).

    But on the other subject, 46 years later, nuts have been an integral part of my diet. In addition to all the nutrients, they are low in carbs, and help you with weight control because (like other proteins/fats) leave feeling “full”. They are also cost efficient if you get them as part of Costco’s large container of Mixed Nuts.

    I try to maintain a diet very low in carbs which helps me lose weight and minimize insulin intake, especially Humalog, which, in turn, minimizes the onset of acute low’s. Consuming pecans and other nuts, helps a great deal with this whole program.

  • acampbell

    Hi Moe,

    It’s a small world, isn’t it? I actually went to Simmons College for my undergrad degree, too. Thanks for sharing your “experience” with nuts. They definitely can be part of a healthy diabetes eating plan… as long as you can stop at just a handful.

  • deedee

    Amy —

    Thanks for allowing me to not feel guilty eating my favorite nut. (I am PWD – type 2). I keep reading about the high fat content, and I keep eating the pecans, anyway. I am extremely rigid with my eating plan (diet), otherwise.

    Now, I will carry post your blog in a prominent place in my kitchen. 🙂

  • Mark

    Hi all, I guess we have to have a day for everything, who would have thought “national pecan day”.
    Great info here, and who doesnt love pecans.
    Good mentioning about allergies, the thing i dont understand, is where were all these nut allergies when i was a kid? Seems like no one can bring nuts to school because of allergies.
    Anyway, loved the article.

  • acampbell

    That’s great, deedee! Enjoy those pecans!

  • acampbell

    Hi Mark,

    Glad you enjoyed the article. As far as why food allergies are on the rise — it’s hard to say. It could be due to a number of factors, including our typical “Western” diet which is high in calories, fat, and sugar; it could be because we’re all now obsessed with being “clean” and using antibacterial products; it could be that parents are waiting to expose potential allergens, like nuts, to their kids at a later age. Or a combination of those things. Hopefully we’ll learn more about it.

  • Katie Egervari

    Can we please stop saying this: “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). ”

    It’s not true. LDL cholesterol is not inherently bad. What causes heart-disease and diabetes is sugar/carbs which spiked insulin. It had nothing to do with fat or cholesterol. You’d think a site on diabetes would know this. LDL is only bad is if it’s pattern B, and that happens when your triglycerides are high… which – you guessed it – is a result of consuming too much fructose. You want to cure type 2 diabetes, stop consuming carbs and sugar. Stop blaming fat and cholesterol.

    On the flip note, eggs + bacon + butter has incredibly low total insulin production, and is a fantastic meal for people with high blood sugar, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. It’s so filling, you can go without eating for 7-8 hours, which again, further drops your insulin levels. “OMG THE FAT” – yeah, it’s going to save your life.