As the world celebrated Pistachio Day on February 26, here’s a look at how nuts and dried fruits are increasingly becoming a part of our daily diet

From prevention of chronic illnesses to weight control, the many virtues of nuts and dried fruits are being studied by researchers extensively today. International forums on nuts and dried fruits have been formed to popularise their health benefits. As awareness is steadily going up, many are switching over to a diet which includes dried fruits and nuts. The usual suspects at the breakfast table, idli-sambar, dosa-chutney, upma, et al are slowly beginning to be replaced by plush jars of muesli, corn flakes, bran and oats along with a variety of nuts and dried fruits.

One cannot take away the goodness of a traditional Indian breakfast, which includes protein, carbohydrate and fibre in fair measure, but for busy professionals, who have little time to take care of their nutritional requirements, nuts and dried fruits are an ideal way to remain healthy, says Gayathri Ashokan, consultant nutritionist and founder of Nutrisolutions, a firm that provides diet advice for healthy living in Kochi. “Nuts and dried fruits are a concentrated source of nutrients. They are rich in protein, fibre and anti-oxidants, which help in warding off diseases including cancer,” she says. “Most of these people do not have time to buy and eat fresh fruits. So packing a few nuts and dried fruits to work seems easier,” Gayathri adds.

Consuming a small quantity of nuts and dried fruits help in controlling body weight too, say fitness experts, as they have a high satiety value. They are filling and can help reduce the intake of excess carbohydrates, says Pratheesh P. Prabhakaran, personal trainer at a fitness centre. Since they are an excellent source of protein, they are ideal for those who do intensive work outs, he adds. Pratheesh prescribes a diet including dried fruits and nuts to most of his clients. “However, those who have health problems such as diabetes or high cholesterol should consult their nutritionist before modifying their diets,” he says. Also, a normal person should consume only a limited quantity of dried fruits and nuts, as overeating may result in weight gain. Together, nuts and dried fruits should only constitute a fistful.

Studies are divided on the effects of dried fruits on diabetics. While some do not advise dried fruits as they are rich in calories, some say they are a safe bet as they have a low Glycemic Index and will not directly increase the blood sugar level.

A relatively expensive alternative to a conventional breakfast perhaps, but weight-watchers don’t mind spending on the different varieties of dried fruits and nuts available in the market today. Even the pine nut, which can cost up to Rs. 2,500 a kilo, has plenty of takers, says Aarthi, whose family owns the Kochi Masala Shop in Broadway. Known for its cholesterol-reducing properties, pine nuts are rich in essential minerals and vitamins, says Aarthi. A kilo of cashew can cost between Rs. 480 to Rs. 620 based on their grade, a kilo of pistachio can cost Rs. 750. Almonds are available for around Rs. 500-600 and walnuts for Rs. 850 a kilo (wholesale rates).

Most of the wholesale stores in Kochi source their cashew from various parts of Kerala. But the others including figs, apricots, prunes, almonds and pistachio are bought from Delhi and Mumbai. India imports a major chunk of nuts and dried fruits from Afghanistan.

Cashew, almonds and pistachio are available in processed forms, too—flavoured, fried, roasted and salted. But nutritionists don’t recommend them as they are rich in fat, sugar and sodium and contain chemicals and preservatives.

Also, those who have nut allergy should stay away from them. The Harvard Men's Health Watch cautions that if you add nuts to your diet, you'll want to cut back on something else. Eating chocolates with nuts will not help as they may contain fat, sugar and preservatives which cancel out the goodness of the nuts.

Despite the increasing awareness on healthy living, statistics reveal that 51 per cent women (15 to 49 years) and 75 per cent children under five in India have micronutrient deficiency, Gayathri points out. One handful of nuts and dried fruits along with a balanced diet will compensate for the deficiency, she says.