From smooth nut butters to crunchy roasted peanuts, there’s no doubt that Americans love nuts! But what makes dietitians and nutritionists so crazy about them?
The nutritional value of nuts
Nuts have long provided nutrient-dense energy to populations around the world (1, 2). Each bite–size morsel contains protein, fiber, essential fatty acids, and key vitamins and minerals that make them an important part of our daily diets. Their high nutrient content, in combination with their affordability and sustainability, have also made nuts a key food in combating malnutrition in developing nations (3).
In addition to adding important nutritional components, nuts can aid in weight management and play a key role in balanced and healthy diets. Recent studies show that frequent nut consumption may have health–protective benefits and positive impacts on body weight by lowering the risk of obesity and weight gain when consumed as part of a low-calorie diet (4, 5). These benefits can be attributed to increased feelings of fullness from the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats provided by nuts as compared to high–carbohydrate snacks (6).
The health benefits of different kinds of nuts
Although different nut types are similar in caloric content, their nutrient compositions vary. Let’s look at some of the more common nuts found in foods and on supermarket shelves.
Almonds are said to have originated in China or Iran before making their way around the world in 3000 B.C. (2). They provide an array of nutrients, such as vitamin E, manganese, fiber, monounsaturated fat, and protein. A number of studies have shown that diets rich in almonds can improve cholesterol levels by reducing LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol.
Walnuts date back to 7000 B.C., making them one of the oldest documented tree foods (2). They are native to South America and were later introduced to Africa and India, where they are commonly grown today. Research has shown that consuming walnuts daily helps reduce caloric intake while also providing valuable nutrients such as polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber (7).
Cashews are native to Brazil and are now popular in multiple culinary dishes around the world. Unlike other nuts, cashews are always roasted or steamed before sale because they contain urushiol, the irritating substance in poison ivy, which can cause skin reactions when eaten raw. Cashews are rich in protein, monounsaturated fats, copper, magnesium, and zinc. They are also an excellent source of vitamins E and K.
Peanuts are native to Central and South America and, despite common misconception, are legume seeds and not nuts. They are high in B vitamins, vitamin E, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, fiber, and phytonutrients such as resveratrol (3). Compared to other nuts, peanuts are affordable and provide similar health benefits closely associated with their high protein and phytonutrient contents.
Choosing the right nuts
Incorporating nuts as a healthful snack or ingredient into your diet can provide many beneficial nutrients in addition to lots of flavor. Like other snacks though, it’s important to make sure you read the product labels and look for simple ingredient lists.
Many companies add sugars or salt to enhance the naturally nutty flavor. For example, many nut butters contain corn syrup, and many nuts are roasted in oil and salt, making them much less healthy as snacks. If you do your research, nuts can be a nutritious addition to your diet without adding empty calories.
- J Salas-Salvadó, P Casas-Agustench, and A Salas-Huetos. “Cultural and historical aspects of Mediterranean nuts with emphasis on their attributed healthy and nutritional properties.” Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases 21 (2011): S1-S6.
- M L Dreher, C V Maher, and P Kearney. “The traditional and emerging role of nuts in healthful diets.” Nutrition Reviews 54.8 (1996): 241-245.
- R Bonku and J Yu. “Health aspects of peanuts as an outcome of its chemical composition.” Food Science and Human Wellness 9.1 (2020): 21-30.
- J Sabate, and Y Ang. “Nuts and health outcomes: new epidemiologic evidence.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89.5 (2009): 1643S-1648S.
- M Bes‐Rastrollo, J Sabate, et al. “Nut consumption and weight gain in a Mediterranean cohort: The SUN study.” Obesity 15.1 (2007): 107-107.
- V Y Njike, T M Smith, et. al. “Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight.” Advances in Nutrition, 7.11 (2016): 866-878.
- R G M De Souza, R M Schincaglia, et al. “Nuts and human health outcomes: A systematic review.” Nutrients 9.12 (2017): 1311.