Life of the Party

The perfect dish for your holiday event? Nutritious, tasty, satisfying nuts.

What’s your vote for the goofiest American trend of the past 30 years? The Lambada? The Rubik’s Cube? The Jennifer Aniston shag-cut? How about that whole thing with boys showing five inches of underwear above their pants? You can fight it out with your friends for your pick of the silliest American trend of the past three decades, but lots of nutritionists have already made up their minds: THe absolute craziest American fad was the way so many of us, for fear of dietary fat, banished nuts from our diets.

How’s that? I could devote a book to all the recent studies on the ways nuts positively affect health, but we’ll just touch on one or two points. For one thing, eating nuts before a meal or in an early course, such as a starter salad, produces a feeling of fullness, or in scientific lingo, satiety. In fact, a 2003 study at Purdue University found that its participants gained no excess weight as the result of consuming 500 calories of nuts a day – probably because of that satiety effect, which led them to eat less at other meals.

Scientists think this satiety likely comes about because nuts slow digestion and stabilize blood-glucose levels. That satiety can make a really big difference over time: One 2001 Harvard School of Public Health study found that dieters who got 35 percent of their calories from monounsaturated fats (the kind in nuts) were three times more likely to keep the weight off than those on low-fat diets. (Oprah has said that one of her weight-loss secrets is a handful of almonds in the afternoon.)

If these satiety benefits weren’t enough, nuts also seem to have an almost magical combination of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein and phytochemicals that work wonders on the cardiovascular system. A number of large studies, including the 1992 Adventist Health Study, the 1998 Harvard Nurses’ Health Study and the 2002 Physicians’ Health Study, found a strong link between eating nuts and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, women who eat 1 ounce of nuts five times a week can expect to have almost a third fewer “cardiac incidents” than people who avoid nuts, according to the Nurses’ Health Study. And one 2005 University of Toronto study found that eating nuts could lower your cholesterol as much as a prescription statin drug will.

All considered, there’s no better time to start eating nuts than the holiday season, when a feeling of fullness can make the difference in whether you make one pass through the cocktail buffet, or three. If there were a bowl of tasty spiced nuts on every December snack table, we’d all be better off.

What, you say? There isn’t going to be a bowl of tasty spiced nuts wherever you go? Then maybe it’s time to revive an old-fashioned American tradition. Instead of cookies this year, why not give your friends homemade spiced nuts?

If you want to give it a try, there’s no better resource than Sally Sampson’s Party Nuts! (Harvard Common Press, 2002), the definitive guide to making plain old nuts into snack-time stars. Got a sweet tooth? Try the cinnamon sugar and orange macadamia nuts. Love spicy? Try the curried chili cashews. When asked for a lovable, giftable, all-around good nut recipe for people just getting started with nuts, Sampson recommends her version of “Jenny’s Friend Leo’s Grandmother’s Pumpkin Pecans.”

“I started working with nuts when I wanted to give a little gift fo my children’s teachers,” Sampson told me, when I talked to her from her home in Watertown, Mass. “But people were so excited about the flavors, and I found so many other people who wanted to share their favorite recipes with me that I thought, ‘Wow, maybe we have a business here.'”

Nowadays, instead of making a few small batches of nuts at holiday time, Sampson and her husband run a successful year-round specialty nut company for all the busy folks who don’t have time to make Sally’s recipes themselves. (If you’re one of these busy people, check out for all kinds of fancy ready-to-eat nuts, as well as lots of good recipe ideas for integrating nuts into everyday meals.)

So, no one knows yet what the next goofy American trend will be, but even if you plan to spend this holiday season dancing the Lambada with a Rubik’s Cube in one hand and a Tickle-Me-Elmo in the other, as long as you eat a few nuts beforehand, you’ll be trending toward a healthier, happier (and perhaps saner) new year.

Recipe excerpted from Party Nuts! by Sally Sampson (Harvard Common Press, 2002.

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Twice nominated for James Beard Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received the award fo her restaurant column in the Village Voice-owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been selected for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003 and 2004.

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