Nutrition Discussion: Nuts

It’s definitely safe to say I eat at least one serving of nuts a day between granola, snacks, nut butters, and sauces (cashews to the rescue for creamy substitutions!).  They are calorie dense, flavorful, and full of healthy fats with a bit of protein.  I throw together a trail mix with nuts, seeds, and one or two dried fruits for road trips or those long days when I won’t be able to sit down for a meal.  My go to is raw almonds and walnuts, roasted sunflower seeds, and dried currants, with a sprinkle of Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips if I want a sweet treat.  Grab an apple or clementine for an extra bit of fiber and micronutrients to round out the mini meal.  Please note: as with beans and legumes, each nut does hold varying vitamins, minerals, protein quantities, and fatty acids.

I’ll start the research review with one very specific study on walnuts that emphasizes omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA).  This could be its own discussion, but in summary, plant-based foods are generally high in omega-6 PUFA but seeds and nuts supply omega-3 PUFA, as do most animal products.  The human body needs both.  An ideal ratio may be close to 4:1 for omega-6 to omega-3, a ratio associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.1  The Western diet features a ratio closer to 16:1 and is associated with increased inflammation and autoimmune disease development.  In a small study regarding walnuts, eating 56 grams (about ½ cup) daily for 4 weeks increased the participants omega-3 levels, pushing their ratios closer to that ideal 4:1.2  The key plant-based omega-3 PUFA is linolenic acid, of which walnuts contain the highest amount among nuts.  Linolenic acid, or ALA, is converted to EPA and eventually DHA, these two being the omega-3 PUFA found in animal sources like fish.  Again, this topic likely deserves its own article, but the participants who consumed walnuts also showed an increase in conversion of ALA to EPA.  This might be a helpful option for vegans who do not consume EPA in their diets.

Nuts have been associated with improved cardiovascular health, part of this effect stemming from the anti-inflammatory omega-3 PUFA content.  In overweight individuals, blood vessel function improved and inflammation decreased within the blood vessels after just a single meal including either 77 grams of almonds or 60 grams of walnuts.3  A meta-analysis of multiple studies found cardiovascular improvements from eating nuts, “24%, 11%, 19%…reduction in the relative risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, [and] cardiovascular disease.”4 

Nuts also reduce the risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease.  After 8 weeks of snacking on mixed nuts, overweight participants showed reductions in weight, insulin, and blood glucose.5  The control group for that study ate the same number of calories in pretzels and instead showed increased triglyceride and LDL levels, essentially an increase in “bad” cholesterol with the low fat food.

Similarly, nuts may offer health benefits when compared to carbohydrate rich foods for people with type 2 diabetes (T2D).6  In a 3 month study, hemoglobin A1c (a measurement for longer term blood glucose and insulin function) and LDL were both reduced when T2D participants consumed mixed nuts as compared to those who consumed whole wheat muffins with similar sugar and protein content. 

Another study on walnuts specifically, found extra health improvements in participants attempting to lose weight.7  Over a 6 month study, all the participants were instructed to reduced their calorie intake by 500-1000 below energy expenditure (how many calories the person used during the day) and significantly increase their daily exercise.  The experimental group also included 28-42 grams of walnuts within their diets.  While both groups improved weight and lipid levels, the group consuming walnuts showed further improvement in LDL levels as well as systolic blood pressure.

In summary?  Please include nuts in your diet!  While they are high in fat and calories, research shows they actually improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels.  I largely buy raw nuts as they can be used for anything.  I do store raw nuts in the freezer to prevent the fats from spoiling, but roasted nuts are more shelf stable.  Off the top of my head, I believe I currently have almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, and macadamia nuts.  As a recipe recommendation, I’ll point you towards Pick Up Limes’ homemade Nutella.  I’ve made it at least 3 times.  It’s incredible, and far healthier than the store bought options, with a hazelnut flavor that you can actually taste!

1. Simopoulos A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & pharmacotherapie, 56(8), 365–379.

2. Petrović-Oggiano, G., Debeljak-Martačić, J., Ranković, S., Pokimica, B., Mirić, A., Glibetić, M., & Popović, T. (2020). The Effect of Walnut Consumption on n-3 Fatty Acid Profile of Healthy People Living in a Non-Mediterranean West Balkan Country, a Small Scale Randomized Study. Nutrients, 12(1), 192.

3. Bhardwaj, R., Dod, H., Sandhu, M. S., Bedi, R., Dod, S., Konat, G., Chopra, H. K., Sharma, R., Jain, A. C., & Nanda, N. (2018). Acute effects of diets rich in almonds and walnuts on endothelial function. Indian heart journal, 70(4), 497–501.

4. Aune, D., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L. T., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D. C., Tonstad, S., Vatten, L. J., Riboli, E., & Norat, T. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC medicine, 14(1), 207.

5. Abbaspour, N., Roberts, T., Hooshmand, S., Kern, M., & Hong, M. Y. (2019). Mixed Nut Consumption May Improve Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Adults. Nutrients, 11(7), 1488.

6. Jenkins, D., Kendall, C., Lamarche, B., Banach, M. S., Srichaikul, K., Vidgen, E., Mitchell, S., Parker, T., Nishi, S., Bashyam, B., de Souza, R. J., Ireland, C., Pichika, S. C., Beyene, J., Sievenpiper, J. L., & Josse, R. G. (2018). Nuts as a replacement for carbohydrates in the diabetic diet: a reanalysis of a randomised controlled trial. Diabetologia, 61(8), 1734–1747.

7. Rock, C. L., Flatt, S. W., Barkai, H. S., Pakiz, B., & Heath, D. D. (2017). Walnut consumption in a weight reduction intervention: effects on body weight, biological measures, blood pressure and satiety. Nutrition journal, 16(1), 76.

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