Eating nuts provides an easy — and tasty — way to add more protein, fiber and healthy fat to your diet. And nut consumption is associated with a number of health benefits as long as you eat them in a healthy way.
“Nuts are an important part of diets for (anyone) who is not allergic to tree nuts or peanuts,” says Carol O’Neil, a professor emeritus of nutrition and food sciences at Louisiana State University. “Tree nuts, as part of an overall healthy diet, can contribute to cardiovascular health.”
Research has shown that people who eat nuts daily lower their risk of heart disease and diabetes, raise their “good” HDL cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy body weight and live longer than people who don’t eat nuts regularly.
Nuts Are High in Fat, But Still Good For You
Many people who took to heart the low-fat dietary guidelines of the 1980s still avoid nuts today because they’re afraid of gaining weight, and some worry that nuts are high in fat. But research has shown that people who regularly consume nuts maintain their weight, rather than pack on pounds.
“Nuts are among the most energy-dense, in terms of food we eat,” says researcher Richard Mattes, professor of nutrition science at Purdue University. “(But) they can be included in a healthful diet without causing weight gain.”
Other research confirms that people who eat nuts regularly have smaller waist circumferences, a lower body mass index and lower risk of obesity than people who don’t.
“Tree-nut consumers had a 25 percent lower likelihood of obesity, a 23 percent lower likelihood of overweight or obesity and a 21 percent lower likelihood of an elevated waist circumference than seen in non-consumers,” says study author O’Neil.
Eating nuts typically doesn’t lead to weight gain because high-fiber, high-protein nuts are very satiating. Even if you don’t realize it, you’re less inclined to overeat after you’ve had nuts.
“Nuts make you feel full,” Mattes says. “People do spontaneously choose to eat less,subsequent to eating the nuts, whether skipping a snack or reducing the size of a snack or meal.”
When Eating Nuts, Avoid the Salty, Sugary Varieties
So how to eat them the healthy way? At the supermarket, you’ll probably see many more varieties of nuts with added salt or sugar (including honey-roasted and smoked options) than raw or dry-roasted nuts with no additives. The ones without added salt or sugar are better for you.
“Addition of these additives does not negate the benefits of the original food, but it does add other potential health risks if consumed in excess,” O’Neil says. “Virtually all Americans consume very high levels of sodium. Excess sodium has been associated with hypertension. Clearly, consumption of salted nuts would contribute to the burden of excess sodium consumption.”
Dry-roasted nuts have a deeper, nuttier flavor, which may satisfy your palate without added salt. The dry-roasting process doesn’t negate the cardio-protective effects of nuts, compared to raw nuts, according to a 2017 study in the European Journal of Nutrition.
If you really enjoy flavored nuts and are less inclined to eat nuts if they’re plain, you can create snacks that tempt your palate without upping your salt or sugar intake.
“If you like to have some type of seasoning on them, do your own,” says Kelly Pritchett, associate professor in nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You can do cinnamon, or use something like cayenne pepper or garlic powder to get that savory taste without using salt.”
Go For the Full-Fat Nut Butters
People afraid of eating too much fat might opt for reduced-fat varieties of nut butters, but they aren’t as good for you as full-fat varieties. That’s because sugar and other empty-calorie fillers are added to reduce their fat levels.
“I would not reach for a reduced-fat version, honestly — typically, those do have more sugar than the regular version,” Pritchett says. “When you look at the ingredients list, if you see roasted peanuts as the only ingredient, that would be a good choice.”
Nut butter may not make you feel as full as you do when you eat whole nuts, though, so it’s important to portion out what you plan to eat ahead of time, instead of dipping into the jar.
“It’s slightly less effective at reducing appetite,” Mattes says. “The energy is more efficiently absorbed than with whole nuts, which is a double-edged sword.”
Enjoy Eating Nuts in Moderation
Even though nuts are good for you, that doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited quantities, of course.
“Regular over-consumption of any food without other adjustment to the diet can cause weight gain,” O’Neil says. “This is true no matter how ‘healthy’ the food — and nuts are a nutrient-dense food with a number of health benefits.”
It’s important to pre-portion out what you plan to eat, “so you’re not mindlessly eating them out of the bag,” Pritchett says.
For one serving, you can eat 14 walnut halves, 23 almonds or 48 pistachios.
“Pistachios have a reputation as the skinny nut (since you can eat so many of them),” Pritchett says. “And the visual cue of the empty shells — after someone has taken the pistachio meat out — decreases consumption by 18 percent.”
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