Eating nuts can be a tasty way to make your diet healthier. 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. But all foods that contain nuts are not equally healthy, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
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.
Research 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. One study examined a host of lifestyle factors, including physical activity, smoking, and diet, in over 100,000 men and women for nearly 30 years.
The reduction of risk of death was greater with more frequent nut consumption. For example, the risk of death from all causes was 11% lower among men and women who consumed nuts once per week and 20% lower among those who ate 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 multi-vitamin supplements. Although these other factors were controlled for in the analysis, common sense suggests that the benefits associated with nut consumption is likely due to a combination of these beneficial health behaviors.
The bottom line is that eating nuts as part of an overall healthy lifestyle is good for you. A person who eats in unhealthy diet, doesn’t exercise, 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 adopting other healthy behaviors.
The good news is that adding nuts to your diet is an easy change to make. A typical recommendation for nut consumption is 1-1.5 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 150-200 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.
Similarly, peanut butter (and other nut butters) are a healthy source of protein and energy. But many contain added sugar as some contain other ingredients like chocolate. In fact, many “nut” butters don’t contain nuts at all and are essentially frosting!
To learn more about the difference between plain nuts and nuts that are essentially candy, check out Candy and Soda for Breakfast!
So, go ahead and go nuts! Just remember to do it as part of an otherwise healthy diet and active lifestyle.