Eating nuts can be a tasty way to make your diet more healthy. Nuts are beneficial because they are rich in healthy unsaturated fats, fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Nuts also contain omega-3 fats and natural plant sterols which, together, may help lower your blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heaving a heart attack.

Although the specific nutrients vary among different nuts, all nuts are thought to be healthy. This includes tree nuts such as almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts and pecans, which have the most research to support their health benefits. But it also includes peanuts, which are actually legumes (like beans), not true nuts.

A recent study suggests that regular nut consumption is associated with a lower risk of dying from many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, examined a host of lifestyle factors, including physical activity, smoking and diet, in more than 100,000 men and women for nearly 30 years.

The reduction of risk was greater with more frequent nut consumption. For example, the risk of death from all causes was 11 percent lower among men and women who consumed nuts once per week and 20 percent lower among those who consumed nuts seven or more times per week. This was true for both peanut and tree nut consumption, suggesting that all nuts are beneficial.

It is important to note that the people in the study who ate the most nuts were also leaner, consumed more fruits and vegetables, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise and more likely to use multivitamin supplements. Although these other factors were controlled for in the analysis, common sense suggests that the reduction in risk associated with nut consumption is likely due to a combination of these beneficial health behaviors.

This means that eating nuts as part of an overall healthy lifestyle is good for you. A person who eats in unhealthy diet, is sedentary and smokes is unlikely undo the negative health impact of their lifestyle simply by eating more nuts. Achieving the full benefits of nut consumption seen in the study also certainly means

The good news is that adding nuts to your diet is an easy change to make. A typical recommendation for nut consumption is 1 to 1.5 ounces per day. This is the equivalent of a handful of most nuts. The goal would be use nuts to replace a less healthy snack, such as chips. A handful of nuts contains about 150 to 200 calories, similar to other snacks such a small bag of potato chips. The difference is that nuts contain healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and fiber, which may fill you up more. Nuts are relatively inexpensive and portable, meaning you can take them with you for a snack. Nuts can also be added to salads and other dishes.

Keep in mind that you should focus on eating plain nuts to get the biggest benefits. Many nuts have added flavors in the form of coatings, glazes and seasonings, which may be high in sugar and salt. Honey-roasted peanuts and chocolate-covered almonds are good examples of nuts that are essentially candy. These types of nuts should be eaten sparingly and for dessert, not as a snack.

This study is good news, especially since a common holiday gift is a container of nuts. Now you can give a healthy gift to your friends and family and enjoy the nuts you receive guilt-free. Just remember to do this as part of an otherwise healthy diet and active lifestyle. Go ahead – go nuts!

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet.