Are nuts healthy?
I’ve found myself recently doing a lot of research into the the health benefits of nuts and these little nutritional powerhouses are actually quite astonishing from a nutrition perspective!
In many circles I find that nuts have got a bit of a bad rep. Friends often say to me “but aren’t nuts fattening”, “don’t they contain a lot of calories?” Well the answer is not so simple…No and Yes, really.
Nuts are one of the foods where the ‘calorie is a calorie’ argument gets a bit stuck. Yes nuts are very calorific foods with around 500 calories per 100g compared with 50 calories per 100g for an apple!
However, a lot of research looking at the impact of nuts on weight seems to show either no effect from eating nuts (i.e. weight doesn’t increase when adding an additional portion of nuts into a standard diet) or even favourable results (i.e. participants in studies lose weight when you introduce a portion of nuts). Humm….science stumped?
Nuts and a Healthy Weight?
What the research suggests, is that for some reason, when we consume nuts, we don’t necessarily absorb all the energy and calories that are present.
On top of this, nuts contain plenty of fibre (around 6-10 grams per 100g), some of which is not digested itself and may actually – as well as keeping the digestive system functioning properly – be responsible for carrying some of the calories out of the body with it!
The Nutritional Profile of Nuts
Nuts are fantastically nutrient dense foods too. With a really favourable balance of fats, including mainly unsaturated fatty acids or ‘healthy’ fats (to use overly simple terms). Nuts also contain plant-based proteins, minerals such as selenium, calcium, iron, zinc and plant compounds such as phytosterols, antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which are thought to benefit the human body.
This means, when you’re getting your dose of nuts and calories, those calories are coming along with a wealth of beneficial compounds, not the empty calories that we might get when we eat a chocolate bar, a packet of crisps or a fizzy drink.
Plenty of studies have also associated nut consumption with reduced risk of coronary heart disease and positive cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Nuts as a healthy snack idea
In recent years, nuts have gained popularity in dietary recommendations and as a healthy option recommended by registered nutritionists and dietitians. This is because nuts are an ideal healthy snack option for many and can also be used as a healthy alternative to some of the breakfast spreads on the market, which often contain high amounts of added sugar.
They are also a great source of energy, making them ideal options for an energy boost at breakfast or between meals.
On top of this, nuts are a useful source of nutrition in a vegetarian diet. They provide a good source of plant-based protein for individuals who choose to avoid or limit animal products. But in addition to protein, the levels of iron, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins that are found in some nut varieties, also further help to make nuts a valuable meat alternative.
What are the best nuts for health?
Different nuts have individual nutrition profiles and therefore varied health benefits. For example, walnuts actually have an authorised ‘health claim’ which is:
“walnuts contribute to the improvement of the elasticity of blood vessels”
(The claim may be used only for food which provides a daily intake of 30 g of walnuts. In order to bear the claim, information shall be given to the consumer that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 30 g of walnuts.)
Walnuts are quite unique as they contain omega 3 fatty acids, a similar type of fat to that found in oily fish. Omega 3 fatty acids have further benefits to heart health and blood cholesterol levels.
However, it’s always a good idea to vary the nuts that you’re consuming regularly, to make sure that you’re getting a wide range of the benefits that different nuts can provide.
To see more information on the different nutrition profiles of some nuts, per portion, please see this useful nut comparison chart.
What is a portion of nuts?
Typically a portion of nuts is recommended to be around 25-30g of nuts or nut butter spread. This roughly equates to a handful (of nuts…not the spread!).
The trouble with nuts is that they are quite moreish and it’s still sensible, as with everything in nutrition, to consume them in moderation.
From a Nutritionist’s perspective, I would say don’t worry if you consume too many nuts in one go – it’s unlikely to have an impact unless you’re doing it on a regular basis.
I’d also say it is a good idea to include a portion of nuts in your daily diet – choosing a variety is best, and going for ones without added sugar, salt or fats is also essential. To help you with portion control, many of the supermarkets offer appropriate snack sized portions. You could also try buying bigger bags and taking them to work in smaller containers. Having them as a spread is also a good idea as 30g of spread is quite a generous portion.
Remember that nuts are a big part of the Mediterranean diet, alongside olive oil, plenty of veggies, salad and fish. So because of the health benefits of nuts it’s a good idea to enjoy them sensibly in your diet 🙂