Are Nuts Actually A Good Snack? A Nutritionist Explains
Do you love to snack? What you snack on can play a big role in your overall nutrition. On average, about 25 percent of the daily calories in the average American diet come from snacks and drinks. That means that even if you eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what you grab in between can have a huge impact on your daily nutrition.
Nuts are one of the most popular snacks out there, and for good reason! They not only satisfy a salty craving but can fit into almost any diet. They are the perfect balanced food for a vegan or paleo diet and can be a healthy part of a weight-loss diet1. They provide a balance of fat, protein, and carbs as well as other health benefits such as:
- High in heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
- Contain antioxidants known as polyphenols, which may protect cells and LDL cholesterol from damage and reduce inflammation and vessel wall plaque
- Contain vitamins and minerals including magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and vitamin E
- High in fiber to help you feel full and to reduce some of the calories you absorb from meals. Fiber is also beneficial for your healthy gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria ferment the fiber and turn it into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that promote gut health. The nuts with the highest fiber content include almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, and macadamias.
- Fairly low in carbs, they will not raise blood sugar like high-carb snacks, so they are a good snack if you have diabetes. If you're following a high-protein or high-fat and low-carb diet, nuts are an ideal snack.
- Adding nuts or nut butter to whole-grain bread or crackers or a piece of fruit leaves you feeling fuller longer because of the protein, fiber, and fat.
An ounce or a handful of nuts contain about 160 to 200 calories, 12 to 20 grams of fat, 3 to 6 grams of protein, and 4 to 9 grams of carbs in addition to fiber ranging from 1 gram to 3.5 grams.
When incorporated into a healthy diet, nuts may help reduce risk factors for many chronic diseases including diabetes2 and cardiovascular disease. Most nuts are considered heart-healthy3 and anti-inflammatory because they are a good source of healthy fats, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. One study shows a greater benefit from adding a handful of nuts daily4 to a Mediterranean diet than adding olive oil.
Each type of nut provides a unique profile of essential nutrients:
- Walnuts are high in the omega-3 fat ALA, alpha-linolenic acid (converts to EPA and DHA).
- Almonds are a good source of calcium and vitamin E.
- Brazil nuts are very rich in selenium.
- Macadamia nuts are high in monounsaturated fat.
- Cashews contain magnesium, iron, and copper.
- Pecans are high in vitamin B3.
The downside to eating nuts:
Nuts are one of the healthiest snacks you can eat. However, the beneficial effects of nuts are attributed to nuts that have been minimally processed. Many nuts and nut butters that you buy have huge amounts of salt, sugar, or added flavors, so it's best to always buy nuts with nothing else added. Then you can easily make them into your own homemade nut butter.
Some people have a hard time digesting nuts. Nuts contain phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, which are designed to protect the nut plant until conditions for germination are present. Once the nut seed sprouts, the phytic acid converts to phosphorus, which the young plant can use for growth. Phytic acid is indigestible for humans and also affects absorption of nutrients such as zinc, iron, and (to some extent) calcium.
So if you feel heavy and uncomfortable after eating nuts, or if you have digestive issues generally, you may try soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them. Soaking is the easiest way to reduce the phytic acid content and make them easier to digest.
How to soak nuts for easier digestion:
- Buy raw nuts. Mix 4 cups of nuts or seeds with 1 to 2 tablespoons salt (not optional—needed to decrease phytic acid) and enough water to cover.
- Soak overnight or at least 8 hours on the counter (not the fridge). Rinse off excess salt.
- Dry in a dehydrator or an oven set to 150°F for 12 to 24 hours until crisp.
Sprouting is an extension of soaking and further reduces the antinutrient substances but is more labor intensive. You must use organic nuts, and salt is not needed.
Another caveat: Remember that nuts are very high in calories. Although there is little evidence to indicate that eating nuts prevents weight loss, a good rule of thumb is to limit them to a handful or an ounce (15 to 20) for a snack. As always, eating everything in moderation is key!
Lea Basch, M.S. R.D. is the Registered Dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. She has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years and was one of the founders of Longmont United Hospital’s nutrition program in Boulder, Colorado. Basch received her bachelors and masters in nutrition and dietetics at Florida International University and a bachelors in education at the University of Florida. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances.