Nuts have have a very well-deserved reputation as a health food. In addition to fiber and plant protein, they’re chock-full of good fat, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But pecans are one nut healthy eaters tend to overlook. (I’m sure it doesn’t help that pecans star in a few indulgent desserts, like pecan pie and pralines.) The truth is, this delicious nut boasts some unique nutritional perks that are worth spotlighting. Here, three good reasons to eat more pecans—plus simple ways to enjoy them, all year long.
Pecans contain particularly potent antioxidants
Pecans are rich in polyphenol antioxidants, specifically flavonoids, which have been tied to heart benefits. In fact, the nuts have more than twice the flavonoid content found in almonds, cashews, and pistachios, and seven times the amount in walnuts. Compared to other nuts, pecans also have the highest levels of gamma-tocopherols, which is a form of vitamin E and another key antioxidant. Two separate studies have suggested that the increase in gamma-tocopherols levels from eating a pecan-rich diet helps prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. (Note: Both studies were funded in part by the National Pecan Shellers Association.)
They’re also rich in minerals
Pecans are an excellent source of thiamin and zinc, as well as manganese and copper. One ounce (about 19 halves) supplies 60% of the Daily Value (DV) for manganese, and 40% of the DV for copper. Manganese helps regulate blood sugar, and is needed for healthy bones. This mineral also helps form collagen, which gives skin its firmness and elasticity. Copper aids in iron absorption, and works with iron to help the body form red blood cells. It also supports immunity, and helps keep blood vessels, nerves, and bones healthy.
And they’re naturally sweet
One ounce of pecans contains just one gram of sugar. But compared to other nuts, pecans taste sweeter. That means they can help satisfy a sweet craving with no or less added sugar.
You can simply snack on a handful, or pair them with fruit (pecans go well with apples, pears, grapes, and kiwi). In the morning, try blending pecans into a smoothie; or add them to hot or cold cereal, oatmeal, a yogurt parfait, or muesli.
Pecans also add natural sweetness and crunch to savory dishes. Sprinkle them onto cooked veggies, whole grains, pulses, spaghetti squash, fish, chicken, tuna salad, or entrée salads. (Check out this recipe for Mixed Green Salad With Dried Plums and Toasted Pecans.) Or use chopped pecans as a garnish for hummus, soup, chili, stir-fries, and lettuce wraps.
For a superfood treat, dip pecan halves into melted dark chocolate and dust with ground cinnamon (yum), or use pecan butter and chopped pecans as the base for energy balls, mixed with chopped dried figs, raisins, or apples, rolled oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
Pick up a bag of pecans on your next trip to the market, or look for the nuts in bulk. And if you live in California, Kansas, Missouri, or a southern state, search for fall pecan picking in your area.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.