Are you a nut nut? I know, I know. It’s a bit naff. But I couldn’t resist it. Do you like nuts, are you a fan? That’s the question.
If you’re not, you might want to think about giving them another go.
I used to really loathe nuts. I think maybe I’d been put off by the breath of someone who’d just had a mouthful of peanuts. It smelled of…. well, something you’d normally associate with repulsion. From then on, whenever I was offered nuts I’d say “No thanks, I can’t stand nuts, they taste of sh*t”. I know. Eloquent. And rude actually. I apologise now to anyone who has made that kind offer only to be offended by my response.
I was pretty convinced nuts were not for me. But then, on a business trip, I was presented with some warmed, salted almonds on the flight home. They smelled quite appealing. I was so hungry I gave them a go. Oh my word! How crunchy and delicious were those? I had some more. Maybe I don’t hate nuts, I thought. I tried others. Cashews… yum! Pistachios… yum! But could I bring myself to try peanuts, or would I gag before I got them anywhere near my mouth? I did try them, I didn’t gag and I love ’em! In fact, a bag of salted peanuts has been a favourite post-competition snack many times.
So nuts are back on the menu, yay! And it turns out it was a great decision, because nuts and seeds may be helping me stay super healthy. Now that said, I do have one word of caution when it comes to nuts. Read on to find out more about the benefits of nuts and my cautionary note.
The health benefits of nuts
Numerous studies have been done on nuts and there’s a lot of evidence that they contribute to good health in many ways. Amongst the benefits are
- Lower mortality
- Better cardiovascular health
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved blood lipid and cholesterol
- Improvement of metabolic syndrome
- Better blood sugar control
- Reduced cancer risk for certain cancers
- Antioxidant properties
- Improved brain functioning
- Reduced inflammation
- Reduction in asthma and allergy symptoms
- Prebiotic qualities
That’s not a bad list is it? Just be aware that many of these studies were done on specific nuts and not all nuts may have these benefits. That said, if you eat a variety, you should receive a broad range of benefits.
So what’s in nuts that makes them so healthy?
Lots of good stuff actually. You can take a look at the micronutrient profiles of various nuts by visiting one of my favourite nutrition sites. This site gives a detailed breakdown of the macronutrient and micronutrient content of thousands of foods. If you want to compare nuts, then the best thing to do is choose 100g as the quantity.
But to save you the hassle, I’ve done this for you! I looked at almond, brazil, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, peanut, pecan, pine, pistachio and walnut. Now I could present you with a table, but that’s a bit geeky. I’m not an academic any more! Here’s a summary:
I picked out the top scoring vitamins from each nut. The main vitamins that came up were vitamin E and B vitamins B6, niacin and thiamine. Folates and vitamin K came up a couple of times.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, so it helps protect the cells from free radical damage. It has an important role in red blood cell formation and immune system support.
Together the B vitamins have numerous benefits, including many of the benefits listed above for nuts in general.
That’s a good start. What’s next?
Nuts are stuffed with minerals. The ones that came up most were manganese, copper and magnesium. Manganese is particularly prevalent.
Manganese is involved in the correct functioning of many enzymes and helps with the body’s usage of vitamins. Because of this broad impact, it plays a role in blood sugar regulation, digestion, energy production, immune response, antioxidant defence, bone health, inflammation, blood sugar regulation, thyroid function and collagen production.
Copper and magnesium cover cardiovascular health, brain function, sleep, muscle contraction, joint health, blood pressure and numerous cellular reactions.
Selenium is worth a special mention. It doesn’t feature particularly high but is off the scale with brazil nuts. One nut a day will give you all you need. Selenium is known particularly for it’s antioxidant properties.
As you can see, antioxidant properties feature a lot. Nuts are going to help you age more slowly.
Nuts are a great source of healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated fat, but a good deal of polyunsaturated too. This is great for your cholesterol and great for heart health.
Note that omega 6 is the dominant fatty acid, not omega 3. As a nation we already eat too much omega 6 compared to omega 3 because our diet is dominated by processed foods containing lots of omega rich vegetable oils. The right balance of omega 3 and omega 6 is great for the brain. For most people this is going to mean increasing omega 3 intake with foods like oily fish. Take a look at our article on food and mental health for a fuller account of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and brain health. And see our sesame trout recipe for a the perfect brain food.
Ah, ok, so the health benefits make sense. Loads of antioxidant support, lots of minerals and healthy fats. So nuts are a great food to include in your diet. The more the better? Not quite. And so here comes my cautionary note.
A cautionary note
Nuts as a protein source
You’ll often here people say that they eat a lot of nuts or they graze on nuts because they are high in protein. They’re actually not that high in protein. But they are high in fat.
If you have a macronutrient ratio that you’re trying to hit, and you’re looking for a source of protein to hit your protein quota, don’t seek out nuts as a protein source. Seek out lean animal or vegetable protein. If, on the other hand, you need a source of fat to hit your fat quota, nuts are a great choice.
Let’s look at some numbers. Lowest on the protein scale, also highest on the fat scale, are macadamias. they have 76g fat per 100g and 8g protein. Oh, and 720 calories per 100g. To get 20g protein, which would be a good minimum protein hit for a meal, you’d need 1800 calories worth of macadamias. And 152g of fat. Lean protein source? No.
Best of the bunch are actually peanuts. 26g protein, 49g fat and 567 calories per 100g. Much better if you’re trying to hit your protein quota with nuts – just 440 calories – but still not a lean protein source.
In the handouts we give our clients, nuts are listed under ‘sources of fat’.
Nuts and weight gain
If you search the internet for ‘scholarly articles on nuts and weight gain’, you’ll find a lot of references concluding that nut consumption does not cause weight gain. This is despite the fact that they are high in fat and calorie dense. In fact, there is evidence that nut consumption may help you lose weight. How does that work? In this study on long term nut consumption, the conclusion makes some suggestions such as the protein and fibre content, vitamins and minerals improving metabolism, delayed gastric emptying and so on. It makes sense and it’s good news. It means there’s really no reason to exclude nuts from your diet just because they are calorie dense and high fat.
But that doesn’t mean you can scoff nuts to your heart’s content. A lot of the studies I mention used isocaloric (same number of calories) replacement of other foods with nuts. Let’s be clear, nuts are calorie dense. Eaten on their own, they’re going to deliver a lot of calories in a short space of time. If you get through a lot of nuts then the probability that you will be in calorie excess for the day is higher. At the end of the day, calories are calories. The evidence cited above is irrelevant if you’re in calorie excess. Eat nuts, but know how much you’re eating, weigh them until you get good at eyeballing the quantity. You’ll be surprised just how little you get for a given calorie allowance.
Roast your own nuts
Some commercial nut products come with added oil or other ingredients such as monosodium glutamate. Of course you can buy them and eat them raw. But if you like the taste of roasted nuts, you might also want to consider roasting your own. The advantages of this are that you
- Get to decide how darkly roasted you want them
- Decide how salty you want them
- Can add seasoning and spices as you see fit. You can experiment
- Can eat them warm – delicious!
I like to make a small amount of very concentrated salt solution, shake the nuts in with it and then spread them on a baking tray. When the water evaporates it leaves a salty film on the nuts. Here, for example, I am roasting a bag of cashews. Yum!
So nuts are great fodder! They are healthy and there’s no reason to exclude them from your diet because they are calorie dense. In fact, you should seek ways to include them if they are not in there already. Just be aware of how many you are eating and keep your consumption moderate to avoid calorie excess.