Updated: Apr 10, 2020
I get asked this question quite a bit. And a fair question it is.
Let’s start with the facts. Nuts are high in calories. A one ounce (30g) serving of almonds and cashews- 23 and 18 pieces respectively- has around 160 calories. One ounce of walnuts- or 14 halves- has 185 calories. You can easily eat a small handful of nuts like it’s nothing. Am I right?
You’d have to eat cups and cups of vegetables to get the same amount of calories. I’m exhausted just thinking about having to do all that chewing.
So yes, nuts are high in calories, but are they “fattening”? Not necessarily. In fact, eating nuts is associated with having a lower Body Mass Index (BMI). And more importantly, they are great for your health.
The following are 3 good reasons for not overly worrying about the calorie content in nuts:
1. It is perfectly okay to have a 150-200 calorie snack (i.e. 25 almonds) between meals, particularly if that snack is high in fibre and protein and low in sugar (nuts!). In fact, this is precisely the type of snack you want to have because it does not spike your blood sugar and the blood sugar drop that quickly follows (aka “crash”). This sugar crash leads to tiredness and irritability, more cravings, and an unhappy you.
2. Nuts are really nutritious and, unless allergic, should ideally be a part of your diet. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and healthy fats. For example, one ounce of almonds has 19% of your daily magnesium requirements and half of your vitamin E requirements. Just one Brazil nut has over 100% of the recommendations for selenium. Selenium acts as an antioxidant in the body and works synergistically with vitamin E. Add a couple of Brazil nuts to your ounce of almonds and you’re good to go! And throw in a few walnuts for some heart healthy omega-3 fats.
3. Finally, try and take the focus away from calories and put it on nutritional quality. I’ve seen people that are more concerned with eating too many nuts than they are about eating a Tim Horton’s muffin (350 calories cough cough). Eating a few too many nuts will add more calories but along with it more of all the good stuff. So not a terrible thing.
Still not convinced? Well, let’s look at what some of the research has to say about eating nuts.
Nuts are protective against cardiovascular disease
One review which analyzed 18 studies concluded that nut consumption was inversely associated with ischemic heart disease and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The risk for CVD was lowest for those who consumed seven servings of nuts or more per week, but even two servings per week was protective.
In this review, the reasons the authors gave for the protective effects of nuts were the following:
Nuts are high in unsaturated fats which are protective of CVD.
Nuts are low in carbohydrate, which means they have little effect on blood sugar (good blood sugar control is very important to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system).
Nuts are anti-inflammatory and help reduce levels of pro-inflammatory compounds called cytokines.
Nuts are high in protein, fibre, antioxidants, and minerals, all of which are protective against CVD.
Nuts can lower cholesterol
Nuts can also help lower cholesterol levels. Another review from 2015 which included 61 studies found that nut consumption lowered total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. The stronger effects were observed when 2 ounces (60g) of nuts were eaten daily. A couple of these studies used up to 100g of nuts per day. In these studies, reductions in LDL cholesterol were suggested to be similar to that of cholesterol-lowering medications.
Having said that, if you decided to go nuts and started eating that amount every day you may just have to sacrifice one of your meals. One hundred grams of nuts has around 500-600 calories. Or you could always just run for an hour or bike for two. But if not, a one ounce, or 30g, serving is also beneficial according to the studies.
Nuts and Weight
Additionally, there is no evidence suggesting that nuts lead to weight gain. In fact, the current review found an inverse association between nut consumption and weight. This inverse association between nut consumption and weight was also found in a separate review, in which participants did not gain weight even with the addition of 300 calories worth of nuts in their diet. So, hey, maybe there is no need to start running for an hour every day.
How exactly do we explain this?
What ever happened to “a calorie is a calorie?” Below are a few explanations:
Since they are satiating, nuts may displace unhealthier foods.
Nuts are high in unsaturated fats which are believed to increase metabolic rate.
Nuts are often not fully digested which means we are not absorbing them entirely. I know, not the most romantic of explanations. But hey, whatever works.
Many- but not all- of these studies are observational and there is a strong association between engaging in healthy lifestyle choices and eating nuts.
Nuts are good for blood sugar control and diabetes
This is absolutely true. Since they contain low amounts of carbohydrate, nuts do not significantly raise blood sugar. In fact, adding nuts to carbohydrate-rich meals can lower the glycemic response of the meal. For example, if you have a piece of that nice, fresh, white baguette you bought at your local farmer’s market, your blood sugar goes up X amount. If you added a small handful of nuts along with the bread, the rise in blood sugar is much less. One study found that eating pistachios along with white bread reduced blood sugar significantly compared to eating the bread alone. And the more pistachios participants ate, the lower their glycemic response. In the Nurses’ Health Study - one of the largest studies to investigate risk factors for chronic disease in women- nut consumption was inversely associated with risk of developing type II diabetes (1,2). Having five servings of nuts per week reduced the risk of Type II diabetes by 27%. Five weekly servings of peanut butter was also protective.
Do roasted, salted nuts count?
Raw nuts are the best option because you pretty much guarantee that all their nutritional properties, including their oils, stay intact and undamaged. But not all fats get damaged by heating. Monounsaturated fats, found in almonds, cashews, as well as olive oil, are not easily damaged. Neither are saturated fats found in Brazil nuts. Polyunsaturated fats, however, are heat sensitive. Walnuts and flax seeds are rich in these fats. Therefore, you are probably okay lightly roasting your almonds and cashews, but perhaps leave the walnuts raw. Some people also like to soak nuts as doing this breaks up the phytic acid and allows the nutrients to become more available for absorption in the gut. Phytic acid, an antioxidant, may interfere with the absorption of minerals, particularly iron, zinc and calcium (3). However, the extent to which these minerals are or aren’t absorbed is not totally clear. What is clear is the many health benefits of nuts, so I wouldn’t worry about it. Soaking or sprouting nuts also makes them easier to digest for those with more sensitive digestion. My advice is that if you are looking to incorporate nuts for their cholesterol lowering properties or general health benefits, have them raw, lightly roasted, soaked or sprouted and skip the heavily roasted and salted kind. I find organic nuts to be the yummiest- especially cashews!
Not fattening! Not only that, but nuts are good for your health by promoting a healthy cardiovascular system, cholesterol levels, blood sugar and weight, among many others. So pack your ounce or two of your favourite nut variety, take it to work for a low-carb, high fibre snack, maybe accompany it with a fruit, some water and you’re set!
References (which I did not include a ink to in the text):