Nuts to You

Food n Mood: Some foods pack a big nutritional wallop into a little space. Almonds top the list.

By Hara Estroff Marano - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Some foods pack a big nutritional wallop into a little space. Almonds must be close to the top of the list.

Particularly nutrient dense, almonds contain a variety of goodies long known to be critical to mental health. Among them are the B vitamin folate and the amino acid tyrosine, a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Then there's magnesium, which contributes to many enzymes that power the brain's intense metabolic activity. Have we mentioned antioxidants, such as quercetin, which protect brain cells from oxidative damage?

Now comes news that almonds protect against heart disease. And they do it not just among the general population. They actually lower cholesterol levels to a significant degree in people who are at special risk for heart disease because of elevated cholesterol levels. They reduce levels of the bad (LDL) cholesterol. But even more, they create a favorable change in the ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol.

Here's an important point to remember. As a general rule, what keeps the heart healthy also keeps the brain and mind operating smoothly.

Although almonds, like other nuts, have a high fat content, the fats they contain are mostly monounsaturated, the kind found also in avocados and olive oil. In fact, 65% of the fat in almonds is monounsaturated fat. The high monounsaturated fat content of almonds not only reduces bad cholesterol and improves the bad/good cholesterol ratio. It favorably changes other blood fats that are normally resistant to change either by drugs or diet.

Here's a rundown of the nutrients in almonds that make them healthy and satisfying. In addition to an array of macro- and micronutrients, almonds contain a significant amount of dietary fiber-more, in fact, than any other nut or seed.

Among the macronutrients:

  • The protein in almonds contributes to their cardioprotective effect.
  • The amino acid tyrosine, a constituent of protein, specifically contributes to the manufacture of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure and reward system in the brain. It is essential for motivation and the willingness to meet life's challenges. Dopamine levels are depleted by stress.
  • The monounsaturated fats are especially beneficial in favorably changing a number of blood-fat factors that contribute to vascular disease.

Among the micronutrients:

  • Magnesium, a mineral essential to many enzymes, especially important in such a metabolically active organ as the brain.
  • Calcium. There's more of the mineral calcium in almonds than in any other nut.
  • Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. Almonds are particularly rich in vitamin E.
  • The B vitamin folate. Folate seems to influence mood on its own by directly enhancing neurotransmitters; it also works indirectly by boosting levels of SAM-e, a substance that powers many brain processes.
  • Quercetin, a phytochemical that acts as an antioxidant
  • Kaempferol, another phytochemical.

Of course, the fat content of almonds carries calories. So when adding almonds to your diet be sure to subtract some calories elsewhere. You'll be doing your heart and mind a favor. To say nothing of your waistline.