It’s easy to snack mindlessly on foods that don’t provide much nutritional bang for your buck. You’re sitting on the couch catching up on that show you’ve been meaning to watch, and before you know it, a handful of chips turns into hundreds of calories—yet you still feel hungry.
The answer isn’t necessarily to quit snacking, but to snack smarter. Health experts and dietitians have long lauded the nutritional value of nuts. And today we’re here to sing the praises of one in particular, the bite of green that keeps you lean: the pistachio. While other nuts have nutritional properties that make them worth adding to your rotation, perhaps none get it done in quite the variety of ways that the pistachio does.
To find out what makes them an ideal snack, we checked in with a couple of pros. Nigel Mitchell, B.S.C., M.S.C., R.D. is head nutritionist for the EF Education First Pro Cycling team and an ambassador for American Pistachio Growers. Mike Roussell, PhD is an author, nutrition consultant, and a member of the American Pistachio Growers’ team of nutrition experts. Here are six reasons they suggest you start snacking on pistachios.
Your heart will thank you
A one-ounce serving of pistachios (49 nuts) consists of about 160 calories and 13 grams of fat. Most of that fat, Mitchell says, is unsaturated—the good kind, which has been shown to help improve heart health.
“Pistachios have consistently shown to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of men. It is meant to be,” Roussell says. You get the sense that he’s only half joking. “Pistachios contain a unique blend of heart-healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants that help increase good cholesterol, lower total, and prevent the oxidation of bad cholesterol—the first step of plaques forming in our arteries.”
Pistachios are also a good source of potassium, the electrolyte that helps support muscle function. A two-ounce serving of pistachios has more potassium than a large banana. And, one serving contains three grams of fiber, a key nutrient in maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
The rest of your body will be pretty happy, too
It isn’t just about heart health, either. “When all the nutrients are considered, it’s difficult to say any other nut provides more overall nutrition than pistachios,” Mitchell says.
What Mitchell is talking about is a combination of fat, fiber, and protein that make pistachios a beneficial snack for a huge swath of the body’s systems and processes.
For example, pistachios also contain high levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that keep your eyes healthy. Of particular note to men, Mitchell notes, one serving of pistachios packs 20 percent of the daily requirement of selenium, a mineral that may help improve sperm count and motility.
Roussell notes other research that suggests that adding pistachios to a meal results in better blood sugar control, or that snacking on pistachios at work leads to better hunger control and focus.
Cracking shells promotes mindfulness (and is just plain fun)
Assuming you’re traditional and go for in-shell pistachios, the mere act of having to break them open forces you to slow down your snacking. “The fact that you have to peel each one from the shell means you take your time to eat them, which helps to prevent overeating,” Mitchell says. “That prolongs enjoyment.”
If you prefer to avoid manual labor, don’t pull heaps of shelled pistachios straight from the bag. Instead, pour a handful—a measured portion size, if that’s your thing—into a bowl or cup to keep from overdoing it.
You can’t beat the taste
If decades of cooking-competition shows have taught us nothing else, it’s that flavor always wins. And while some of the most popular, best-tasting snacks are loaded with empty calories, added sugars, and sodium, the virtuous pistachio packs its own distinct flavor while still being a natural, whole food.
“They have a wonderful buttery taste while also having the crunch that you expect from a good snack food,” says Roussell.
They fuel you to work harder
Because pistachios are high in fat and protein, their energy is released into the body slowly. That makes them ideal for low-intensity exercise like walking or hiking, say Mitchell. For a more rigorous workout, like a long bike ride, pistachios can still keep you rolling; Mitchell recommends making rice cakes with pistachios for both quick- and slow-release energy. (His recipe has been a favorite among multiple pro cycling teams and is featured in his book, The Plant Based Cyclist.)
“Pistachios are the only portable complete plant protein,” Roussell points out. “They contain antioxidants and electrolytes to support recovery and don’t require preparation or refrigeration. This is great for activities on the go.”
Finally, thanks to pistachios’ high protein content (7 grams per ounce), they also make a good post-workout snack when coupled with other high-protein foods like eggs.
There are endless ways to enjoy them
There are plenty of “better for you” snacks out there, but few are this versatile. Sure, a handful of pistachios is great-tasting and simple, but the fact that you never really have to eat them the same way twice is what will keep you coming back to your new go-to snack.
For example, Mitchell uses pistachios in his homemade pesto, and likes to mix them with goji berries for his oatmeal or yogurt. You can use them to top fish dishes for a bit of color and crunch; and pistachio ice cream remains as popular as it ever was.
And of course, you can just pop ’em right out of the shell. Roussell notes that there are more nuts in one serving of pistachios (49) than with any other nut. So you can literally eat more of them.
The list of ways to enjoy this little green powerhouse goes on, and that’s the point. Grab yourself a handful of pistachios and get ready to boost the nutrition, texture, and flavor profile of any snack or meal.
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