By: Austin Perlmutter, MD, Medical Student, Miller School of Medicine
Lets talk nuts. From macadamias to pistachios, nuts are nature’s energy packets. For their taste, they’re a classic cocktail party snack, and for their calorie and fat content, they’re villainized. But curent research supports the idea that calorie quality matters at least as much as quantity, and despite prior misgivings about our tasty snacks, nuts may in fact be quite healthful after all.
First, lets look at the most recent data, a meta-analysis in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition relating to nuts and their interaction with ischemic heart disease, diabetes and all cause mortality, which found nut consumption inversely related to risk of heart disease and death from any cause. Suggestions for these findings usually center around the healthful fats found in nuts, as well as their anti-inflammatory effects and high mineral contents.
When heart disease tops the list of death causes in the US, it’s worthwhile to look closely at anything lowering our risk for developing this deadly condition. Some data even suggests that the same healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts act as antiarrhythmics, stabilizing our heartbeat patterns. This may help to explain the fact that nut consumption was shown in the same study to correlate with a lower risk of sudden cardiac death.
If evidence for possibly lowering your risk of heart disease and dying in general isn’t enough to get you interested, you may still be clinging to thermodynamics, which would say that more calories in means more weight gain, and nuts are high in calories. And yet, data review continues to support the fact that nuts do not cause weight gain, and may in fact aid weight loss. The mechanisms are thought to involve quick feelings of satiety when eating nuts, while other research points to a possible increase in thermogenesis, a process that leads to increased energy expenditure after nut consumption.
It’s important to note that the health benefits of nuts hinge on eating nuts, not the vast array of nut-based products available. Nut butters, unless explicitly specified, tend to contain a variety of additives including sugar, salt and oils which may negate the healthfulness of the nuts inside. Salted, sweetened, or otherwise coated nuts may become less nutritious by the addition of flavorings. Roasting nuts remains controversial, as some say the process increases oxidation, decreasing the value of the nut. However, if a plain roasted nut is more palatable, it’s still a healthful bundle of fats and proteins.
Overall, data shows that nuts are a healthful food, and supports the idea that we should promote nut consumption rather than avoiding it. The following are keys to consider in adding nuts to your diet:
- Start slow: There’s no need to overdo it at the start. While nuts are great, too much of the high fat high fiber food too quickly can stress the GI tract. A handful or two a day may be a good starter if you’re not a nut eater.
- If you’re going to buy products like nut butter, make sure the only ingredient inside is the nut of choice. Sugar, salts, and other preservatives may make the butter smoother, but they aren’t helping your health
- There’s a wide variety of nuts available, but some of the best health evidence is on walnuts, almonds and pistachios. If you’re looking for a place to start, these are a good bet.
- Nuts are highly versatile! Almond flour replaces wheat for cakes, and pistachios make an excellent crust over fresh salmon. The recipes for novel uses for nuts continue to expand.