03/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The 10 Things You Need to Eat: Nuts

Having trouble getting in enough zzz's at night? Add a handful of walnuts to your bedtime routine and you'll be sound asleep in no time. Studies have found that eating walnuts raises levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle. Something to keep in mind the next time you're counting sheep.

But that's not the only way nuts can improve your health and well being. If you want to lose weight and still eat your heart out, nuts are just the ticket.

Studies have found that people who eat almonds, peanuts, walnuts and other nuts as part of a diet program are more likely to lose weight than gain it, and are more likely to report feeling satiated after meals. They also experience more improvements in their energy levels and cardiovascular and cognitive profiles.

This may come as a surprise to folks who think of nuts as little fat-laden bombshells with zero nutrition. But much like avocados, the fat that nuts contain is the good and all-important kind: unsaturated fats. In fact, just one handful of walnuts contains a full day's worth of omega-3's. These fatty acids are good for your heart, significantly reducing your risk of heart disease and helping to lower LDL cholesterol. On top of this, nuts help you feel full while also ramping up your body's ability to burn fat, which helps explain why they're such a helpful dieting tool.

But the key to reaping the rewards of nuts in your diet is not to simply add them on top of an existing unhealthy regimen. Rather, they should be used in place of other less healthy foods. The perfect example: using nuts instead of cream and milk products. This may sound nuts (sorry, couldn't help it), but thanks to all that heart healthy fat, nuts can create wonderfully creamy rich textures when you grind them into a paste. Anyone who has eaten a spoonful of peanut butter knows this well. Throw a few tablespoons of cashew 'butter' into a sauce and you have a cream sauce that even a Frenchman could be proud of.

It's even possible to use cashews to make creams that can be used in place of butter products like ghee in many Indian and South Asian dishes (check out the book for an amazing "Chicken in Garam Masala-Spiced Cashew Cream" recipe). And of course, you can always grab a handful of peanuts or walnuts as a quick snack when hunger strikes.

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