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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 www.sampsonsnuts.com 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.

Jenny’s Friend Leo’s Grandmother’s Pumpkin Pecans

Whip up these satisfying, tasty nuts for your holiday party. Or make several batches in advance to serve and offer as gifts (see below for storage suggestions).

  • 1 large egg white (2 tbs.) lightly beaten
  • 2 tbs. cold water
  • 1/2 cup sugar ( you can also experiment with other sweeteners, like honey, maple or agave syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper flakes
  • 4 cups raw pecan halvesPreheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the egg white, water, sugar, salt, spices and pepper flakes in a large bowl and mix well. Let stand for 15 minutes, then add the pecans and toss until well coated.

Transfer the pecans to the prepared sheet and arrange in a single layer. Place in the oven and cook, stirring every 15 minutes, until the pecans appear dry – about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, immediately loosen the nuts with a metal spatula and set aside to cool before serving.

Makes 4 cups.

Storage tips: Because the delicate oils in nuts make them vulnerable to spoilage, Sally Sampson recommends storing nuts in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or, better yet, the freezer: “While it won’t hurt to refrigerate most nuts for up to three months, you’ll guard against rancidity by freezing them,” she says. This goes for toasted, roasted and sautéed nuts, she says (including all the recipes featured in Party Nuts!, as well as the raw kind.

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