These beautiful gifts of nature have long been the center of controversy—with wildly opposing opinions about whether or not they are really good for us.
Are nuts the essence of nutrition, tasty treats brimming with health benefits?
Are they to be avoided at all costs, given their fat-inducing high calorie content and questionable nutritional advantages?
What’s the truth?
Are nuts really bad for you?
Or are they actually good for you?
As I will explain, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
In the end, nuts are good for your health – as long as you don’t go nuts.
Are Nuts Good for You?
The simple answer to the question ‘Are Nuts Good for You” is YES!
A mountain of studies point conclusively to the fact that nut consumption is indeed very beneficial for your health and is associated with reducing the risk of a variety of chronic ailments including stroke, heart disease and cancer.
Nuts are best known for their benefits in the prevention of liver, breast and colon cancer. Research shows that early nut consumption can lower the risk of breast cancer with the protective effect being strongest for women with a family history. Other studies have revealed that even two handful of nuts a week may protect against deadly pancreatic cancer.
The Walnut Factor
In terms of health advantages, walnuts appear to be the ‘star’ nut. Widely studied, the humble walnut promotes health by:
- Lowering blood cholesterol
- Preventing sudden cardiac death
- Improving artery function
- Decreasing cancer cell proliferation
And the walnut ‘wow’ factor also protects your heart. In a study where participants were fed a fatty meal and then a handful of English walnuts, the impact of the meal on endothelial function was significantly lowered.
What Makes the Walnut so Mighty?
Walnuts strength stem from their HIGH antioxidant activity content.
In fact, walnuts (and pecans) have five times the antioxidant activity of peanuts or pistachios.
25 walnuts have the antioxidant equivalent of 100 oranges!
Walnuts’ high antioxidant content are linked to their health-promoting phytochemicals. When you consider walnuts’ phytochemical and antioxidant content—along with the fact they are a rich source of magnesium—it is really no wonder they are so effective in ‘fighting’ cardiovascular disease.
Nuts—Why the Question Might Not Matter
However, for those of you who are already eating a whole food, plant-based diet complete with a ‘rainbow’ of fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains and low in added oils, salt and sugar, the chronic disease-fighting benefits of nuts might be somewhat of a moot point.
Let me explain why…
Most of the studies conducted on nuts are done on people who are eating the Standard American Diet and therefore are already at high risk for developing chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
But if you are eating a whole food plant-based diet, you most likely have improved endothelial function and reduced risk of developing any of those diseases. Given that, it’s pretty tough to know how many more benefits nuts can add to your already health-promoting plant-based diet.
Do Nuts Make You Fat?
In recent years, many studies have emerged which appear to show that nuts do not make you gain weight (despite their high calorie count and fat content). The most common explanation for this is that nuts have a high satiety quotient (i.e. they fill you up) as well as low metabolizable energy, both which lead to reduced calorie consumption.
But the real truth about nuts and weight gain (or loss) is a bit more complex. To fully understand how eating nuts will affect your weight, we need to revisit two important concepts: energy density and the dietary compensation theory.
First, let’s review the concept of energy density
Each food has its own energy density. Interestingly, a small amount of food can have a much higher energy density than a large amount. For example, olive oil has 40 times the energy density of broccoli, so one tablespoon of olive oil has more calories (energy) than a whole pound of broccoli.
We eat a similar weight of food every single day, regardless if those calories come from low, medium or high density foods. So it stands to reason, if we change the energy density component of the food we consume, our caloric intake will go up or down depending on the shift. Simply put, if we start eating a lot of high energy density foods, our caloric intake will dramatically increase. If we start eating lower energy density foods, our caloric intake will decrease.
Not surprisingly, given the refined, calorie-rich foods that are now the staple of the Standard American Diet, the likelihood of over-eating energy-dense foods is much higher than energy-sparse foods that are full of nutrients and have fewer calories.
And to add insult to injury, these refined, high calorie foods tend to be less satiating, so we keep eating more and more simply to feel full.
The Importance of Satiation
The concept of satiation is directly linked to the dietary compensation theory:
When you eat foods with high satiety levels, you ‘compensate’ by NOT eating something else.
In other words, when you eat something that satiates fully you will—either intentionally or unintentionally—remove at least some of those calories from other food sources.
Nuts of course are no exception. In fact, in two separate studies of peanuts and almonds, subjects “compensated” for 54% – 66% of the nuts they consumed by eating fewer calories from other food sources.
So let’s go back to the original question–does eating nuts make you gain or lose weight?
The answer really depends on what kind of diet you are eating to begin with.
In the majority of studies conducted to explore this issue, the diets of the participants were already energy dense. Thus, when you added nuts, what happened was one energy-dense food source simply replaced another. This meant weight wasn’t gained (or at least not to the expected extent)—and in some instances was lost (particularly if the nuts replaced an even higher density food like oils).
The opposite of course is true. If you add nuts to a (low-fat) whole food plant-based diet which is by definition low energy-dense, you will probably gain weight. Simply put, the ‘compensation’ factor will not be similar to those who are eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) or the Mediterranean Diet (which with its use of oils and animal foods also has a higher fat content and calorie count). In effect, with both SAD and the Mediterranean Diets, you are simply ‘exchanging’ the original calories with nuts. Conversely, when you eat more nuts on a diet that is low in fat (a whole food plant-based diet), you are replacing ‘energy-sparse’ foods with ‘energy-dense’ foods (nuts) and your caloric intake will increase. So will your weight.
In conclusion, incorporating nuts into a high fat, energy-dense SAD diet may not increase weight gain due to the high satiation property of nuts as well as the compensation factor. Adding nuts to a healthful (low-fat) whole food plant-based lifestyle however might indeed lead to weight gain; the only real way to avoid this is to control the quantity of nuts consumed.
What’s the Best Way to Eat Nuts?
In the end whether or not you gain weight with nuts will be related to HOW MANY you eat…
So how much is that?
The general consensus says that an ideal daily quantity is about a handful—or one ounce. That’s about 23 almonds, 7 whole walnuts or 21 hazelnuts.
And the best way to eat nuts?
Eat them whole. Eat them raw. (Or lightly toasted which is an incredibly delicious way to prepare them – but buy them raw.)
Nuts are delicious and can add an additional texture (not to mention a variety of health-promoting phytochemicals) to many dishes.
The important thing is not to go nuts with nuts. They should be eaten in small amounts, like a garnish, and you should always eat them whole. Think of your one ounce of nuts as a condiment rather than a generous meal. If you do that, you won’t eat more than an ounce and you won’t compromise your weight.
A Nice Addition… but Not Mandatory
Nuts can be a nice addition to a diet—but they are certainly not a mandatory one. If you do love nuts, enjoy them but just be sure that you control the daily amount you consume.
If you are someone who simply doesn’t like that nutty taste (or are allergic to them!), you can rest assured that you can skip the nuts and still get rich, fully balanced nutrition simply by eating “a rainbow” of fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains.