What food has the texture of butter, but with many more nutrients and a lot less saturated fat? You already guessed it – the avocado. These nutrient-packed fruit (yes, they are classified as a fruit) provide a wide range of nutrients that are being recommended for better health. Avocados go beyond guacamole - besides eating them freshly sliced, they can be slipped into a number of great recipes.

If you enjoy avocados, you are not alone. Statistically, the average American consumed 7.75 pounds of avocado last year, compared to only one pound in 1990. Avocados are appearing on more menus in restaurants and in numerous searches and posts online. Besides the taste and texture, there are a number of other reasons for this increase.

Some foods that are calorie-dense contain “empty calories”. Not the avocado. They boast a wide range of healthy ingredients such as several B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, zinc, significant potassium, and a number of phytonutrients with unique health benefits (many being antioxidants).

One phytonutrient, beta-sitosterol, is especially helpful when it comes to normalizing blood lipids – cholesterol and triglycerides. This nutrient can also help to keep blood vessels healthier and less likely to accumulate plaque. Other phytonutrients in the avocado are heroes in the realm of anticancer, while others like lutein and zeaxanthin help to protect the eyes from damage.

Even though they are classified botanically as a fruit, on the diabetic exchange list they are found on the fat exchange list. Although this means they are calorie-dense, the primary type of fat they contain is mono-unsaturated. This and the polyunsaturated fat they contain can benefit those with high cholesterol and high triglycerides.

When it comes to guidelines for high blood pressure, avocados can assist in several ways. Not only are they low in sodium, but they contain significant amounts of potassium and fiber, both of which are suggested in the DASH Diet for lowering high blood pressure.

Including some healthy fats in the diet will assist with the absorption of certain nutrients in other foods. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, requiring the presence of fat for uptake. Some of the phytonutrients (like beta carotene and lutein) need fats for better absorption, too. For instance, including some avocado in a salad will allow you to take in more of the nutrients in the veggies.

Parents note that avocados are often a baby’s first favorite food. The texture and nutrient content make it a logical option for the immature eater. Babies need fat for the development of their brain and nervous system, as well.

As you can see, although they are calorie-dense, avocados are also nutrient-dense. Besides the nutritional benefits, they can provide a feeling of fullness and satisfaction (because of their fiber and fat content). This could mean eating less in general and also less of the empty calorie foods that provide calories with minimal nutritional value. For this reason, when consumed in moderation, they could be a healthy way to achieve weight goals.

With the concern for saturated fat intake, many new recipes containing avocados are showing up online, in cookbooks, in prepared foods at the grocery store, and in foods served at restaurants.

What are some ways to slip some avocado into your days? Look for avocado toast on breakfast menus. It can be an easy part of a healthy breakfast at home as well. You can replace the mayo in a sandwich with slices or a smear of avocado/guacamole. Guacamole can be healthier as a veggie dipper in place of a dip made with cream cheese or sour cream.

Use avocado or guacamole in a quesadilla in place of some of the cheese to cut down on the saturated fat. With other Mexican dishes (like tacos and burritos), just use the guacamole and skip the sour cream to lean towards a lesser amount of saturated fat.

Avocados or guacamole can be added to cooked grain bowls for a smooth texture and buttery mouthfeel. They can be a tasty addition to a scrambled egg wrap for breakfast. They can be cubed and tossed into a veggie salad with a vinaigrette dressing.

Halved avocados can be used as a serving vessel for chicken, fish, or shrimp salad. Mashed avocado can be used in a number of baked goods, like muffins and quick breads, in place of some of the shortening. Avocado pesto adds a creamy texture and delicious flavor to whole grain pasta dishes.

Avocado can add creaminess to soups and smoothies. They are being used in some pudding and mousse recipes. This creaminess works well for salad dressings, too.

Spring kicks off the California avocado season which continues into the summer months. Seven varieties of avocado are grown there on over 5 million trees!

So, for the nutrients, health benefits, buttery texture, and versatility of the humble avocado, try exploring the many ways you could slip the nutrient-dense avocado into your diet.

[See www.californiaavocado.com/recipes for more recipe ideas]

Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).