Good news about nuts: A new study says you can probably eat moderate amounts of them without gaining weight
Whether it’s almonds, walnuts, peanuts or cashews, just about every story about nuts and nutrition has the same beginning, middle and end.
They’ll start out with how new research has confirmed nuts are great; the best. Then we learn all about how they’re chock full of vitamins and have miracle healing properties and superpowers of some kind or another. And finally the story gets to the bit about fat, which informs the reader that a handful of nuts contains close to 200 calories, which for many represents about 10 per cent of our daily calorie allowance.
Eat more nuts. But, whatever you do, don’t eat too many nuts. Confusing, right?
Well, the end of the great nut paradox might be in sight, thanks to a new study from the University of Toronto that suggests, even though they’re full-fat snacks, moderate nut consumption isn’t associated with weight gain. And while we don’t yet have a magic number to tell us where nuts top out, somewhere between 30 and 45 grams per day may actually be associated with weight loss.
Best of all, nuts really do appear to be genuinely good for us. This isn’t just a clickbait piece along the lines about the surprisingly healthiness of daily vodka drinking. When it comes to nuts, the benefits are real.
“Eating nuts according to the recommended guidelines will lead to a reduced risk for heart disease and also a reduction in your hemoglobin A1C (a test that measures blood sugar levels over time), which is an indicator of your health risk for diabetes,” says Stephanie Nishi, lead author of “Are fatty nuts a weighty concern?”
Nishi was a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine when she conducted the research, which was designed to see if there was an unfair “stigma” around nuts. Although all foods are potentially fattening in large quantities, it tends to only be nuts that get singled out in nutritional advice.
“It’s present in social media and also nutritional guideline documents that are public-facing, even from very credible institutions and organizations that still have this caveat at the end of their documents about being careful with nuts” says Nishi, now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Rovira i Virgili in Spain. “Or sometimes there are tables that list nuts only with their calories and fat content and no other nutrients.”
It’s not perfectly clear why nuts aren’t associated with weight gain in the research Nishi authored, but she says one possible mechanism has to do with satiety. Since they’re nutrient- and energy-dense, nuts might just fill us up faster and keep us feeling full for longer periods of time — the opposite of empty calories.
Another hypothesis revolves around the way we digest nuts. An estimated 20 per cent of the calories from fat in an almond don’t ever make it into our system, according to Nishi’s research. Nuts are hard to digest which, of course, also means they’re a great source of fibre. And that fibre may help encourage good bacteria in our guts. The good news (about nuts, at least) just keeps on coming.
The challenge, however, is getting the word out there that most people can probably up their nut consumption, since few Canadians incorporate them into their daily diets.
“We actually looked at what people are consuming on a population level and people are not anywhere near the recommendations,” says John Sievenpiper, associate professor at Temerty Faculty of Medicine and co-author of the paper. Sievenpiper notes that the challenge is getting people to work nuts into daily meals and an overall diet, as opposed to merely treating them as a health supplement after they hear about the magical health properties of nuts.
“I think there’s this reductionist tendency in nutrition to just take it right down to what nutrients are doing,” Sievenpiper explains. “People think if we add in some nuts we can eat everything else we want. And, of course, that’s not true. We want nuts to be part of a healthy dietary pattern that’s been shown to have benefits and advantages, like the Mediterranean diet, the Portfolio diet, or DASH or any other diet that’s more plant-based.”
These diets are more “nut-forward,” say the researchers. It’s also worth noting, though, that nuts are pretty great gateway ingredients for plant-based diets. Sprinkling a few on salads, roasted vegetables or a morning fruit bowl adds a little texture and variety, making those dishes a little more exciting. It’s the confusion around calories, likely not the taste, that’s keeping people from, well, going nuts. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
“Of almost all the plant-based foods, it’s probably the easiest to incorporate into a dietary plan,” says Sievenpiper. “People love nuts, but that’s also probably why people have reservations. They think they’re hedonistic and it’s easy to overeat them.”
I feel seen.
“The point is that it’s just a great transition food for people looking to make their diet more plant-based,” he adds. “So it’s not just good for personal health, it’s also good for planetary health.”
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