If you don’t eat nuts, you’re missing out on some big nutrition. Yes, nuts are high in fat and calories. But if you can keep your portions reasonable and cut back elsewhere, you can make room for those calories. Besides, the fat is mostly healthful unsaturated fat, and all the nutrients you get for those calories makes nuts worth fitting into your shopping cart and your diet. Here's what you need to know when you're buying nuts.
Nuts are also the perfect snack food, good to go and full of protein to satisfy your hunger and keep you full longer. Along with buying nuts at the supermarket, you'll want to purchase nut butters—from almond to walnut butter—for an easy and healthful sandwich option.
Nuts and your health
Nuts and nut butters provide healthful unsaturated fats, protein, a little fiber, and an array of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Most make significant contributions to your daily intake of folate and other B vitamins. They also have vitamin E (some are substantial sources), copper, magnesium and potassium. Brazil nuts are a particularly good source of selenium; walnuts are richest in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat; almonds are a surprising source of calcium. Phytochemicals in nuts include ellagic acid, polyphenols and saponins, all with antioxidant activity. Sterols in nuts help lower cholesterol, while arginine, an amino acid, relaxes blood vessels and inhibits blood clotting.
A number of studies have shown that nuts can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels and improving other coronary risk factors. The Nurses’ Health Study found a lower risk of type 2 diabetes in women who ate an ounce of nuts at least five times a week. Another study linked peanut butter consumption in women (a tablespoon most days of the week) to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And, as shown in another study, almonds can even act as prebiotics, boosting the population of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
Many people think nuts are “fattening,” because of their high fat and calorie content. But studies suggest that adding nuts to your usual diet will not lead to much, if any, weight gain. And if you compensate for their calories, you won’t gain any weight. In some research, dieters have actually lost more weight when eating nuts. That’s not so surprising considering how filling nuts can be, compared to high-carb snacks that might leave you hungry again in a short time.
What about peanuts? Though technically a legume, peanuts have a similar nutritional profile as true “tree” nuts (peanuts grow in the ground, while “tree” nuts grow on . . . trees). Actually, they have more protein than any tree nut—ounce for ounce, as much as poultry, fish or meat. Plus, they are one of the best sources of arginine and the only nut that contains resveratrol, an antioxidant also found in grapes, wine and soy that may protect against heart disease, among other potential health benefits.
Nuts: Nutrition Facts
All nuts are good for you, but you have to keep an eye on your intake. Aim for about an ounce (a small handful) most days of the week, in place of foods that are high in calories and low in nutrition. Find out what your favorites contain.
Understanding nut products
Dry- versus oil-roasted? You might think you’re doing yourself a favor by foregoing oil-roasted nuts and reaching for dry-roasted instead. But the calorie difference between them is actually quite small. Most of the fat and calories you get come from the nuts themselves, not from any oil that may be added in processing. So pick whichever you prefer. In some cases, roasting actually increases the antioxidants. Pay more attention to the added sodium in packaged nuts. If you have high blood pressure or are at risk, unsalted or lightly salted nuts are the way to go.
Nuts versus nut butters? Nut butters contain all the same good nutrition that nuts do. Many peanut butters grind in some of the peanut skins, which contain potentially beneficial compounds. Still, there are a few possible drawbacks to nut butters. Some may contain added oil or emulsifiers to help with spreadability and keep the nut butter from separating at room temperature, which is okay. But make sure the added oil is not in the form of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of unhealthful trans fats. Nut butters may also have added salt and sugar, depending on the brand. All nut butters have about 100 calories per tablespoon.
Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread, is another story. The original recipe was developed in Italy during World War II when cocoa supplies were low and hazelnuts were plentiful. But its main ingredients today are sugar (21 grams per 2 tablespoons, making up 40 percent of the calories) and vegetable oils (mainly palm oil, whose health benefits are unclear), followed by hazelnuts, cocoa solids, and skim milk.
Whipped Peanut Spread? Sold alongside peanut butters, this surprising product boasts that it has no calories, fat or carbs. How can that be? Easy—it contains no actual peanuts. Rather it’s made from water, vegetable fiber, cornstarch, xanthan gum, sucralose, food colorings and other additives, with some peanut flavor and peanut extract. Sure, you won’t get the 180 calories that a 2-tablespoon serving of peanut butter has, but this waxy pseudo-food doesn’t provide any protein, healthful fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals or phytochemicals (or any of the heart benefits real peanuts offer). The product actually runs afoul ofFood and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations by calling itself a “peanut spread” without prominently announcing that it’s an imitation.
Nuts: good-to-know facts
• Nuts in their shells will keep for about 6 to 12 months if stored in a cool, dry place, but shelled nuts only about half as long. Keeping them in the refrigerator or freezer slows rancidity.
• If a “natural” nut butter separates, all it takes is a good stir. You can put it in the refrigerator to keep it from separating between uses. If you don’t plan to eat the whole jar by the “use by” date, that’s another good reason to keep it in the fridge (all nut butters, not just natural ones, keep longer under refrigeration).
• A little more than one percent of Americans are allergic to nuts (including peanuts). If you’re among them, you need to be extra careful to check food packages for their presence. Fortunately, the FDA requires labeling of the eight foods that most commonly cause serious allergic responses, and this includes tree nuts and peanuts (along with milk, eggs, fish, crustacea/shellfish, mollusks, wheat and soybeans).
• Even if you have a peanut allergy, you can safely consume most commercially refined peanut oils since they typically undergo a process that removes all the protein, which is the allergenic part. Cold-pressed, extruded or expeller-pressed peanut oil may retain some protein, however, and should not be considered allergen-free.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for nuts
- Check both the snack and baking aisles, depending on the kinds of nuts you want. Buy an assortment for a good variety of nutrients and phytochemicals.
- Buy either dry-roasted or oil-roasted nuts: The calorie difference is negligible. Spanish peanuts have a higher oil content and are more flavorful, but they are often more expensive. Raw nuts are a good choice, too.
- Look for unsalted (or lightly salted) varieties. Salted nuts have 100 to 200 (or more) milligrams of sodium per ounce. Lightly salted nuts have about 45 to 95 milligrams.
- Look for peanut and other nut butters that have no added sugar or partially hydrogenated oils. Experiment with different ones, like almond, cashew and hazelnut butters. They are typically more expensive, but their distinctive flavors may allow you to use less than you would of peanut butter, or to use them in different ways.
- Don’t overlook soy nut butter; it is similar to peanut butter in taste and texture but is lower in fat and calories and higher in protein.
Published August 15, 2013