While it’s true that nuts pack a caloric punch, but it isn’t one you should be afraid of. All nuts are roughly equal in terms of calories per gram, and they each contain a blend of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and dietary fiber – the exact makeup of which varies from nut to nut, but we can safely say that with reasonable (moderate) consumption nuts can be a healthy part of any diet.
Avoid nuts that are roasted in oil and/or heavily salted. For maximum nutritional benefits eat them raw, dry roasted (in the oven) or toasted stove top.
So what nuts should you be adding to your diet? Let’s go nuts for nuts and deep dive into our top five.
First up, the humble peanut. Did you know that this superstar of lunch box sandwiches everywhere isn’t even really a nut? That’s right, the peanut, which grows underground, is actually a member of the legume family, along with lentils, beans, and peas.
Much like their legumey cousins, peanuts are protein-packed with about 7 grams of protein per one-ounce serving. The good news for vegetarians is that when combined with a grain such as wheat, peanuts form a complete protein. This makes the peanut butter sandwich pretty much a perfect food!
Unlike other legumes, peanuts are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, much like those found in olive oil. They’re also rich in magnesium, which is linked to cardiovascular health. But perhaps most surprisingly, peanuts are a source of reversatrol, the compound in red wine that has been linked to heart health.
But peanuts aren’t just great for your heart – they’re also a brain boosting super nut due to their high folic acid content, which is essential for brain development and helps to protect unborn babies from birth defects. All those healthy fats are also great for the brain, along with the notable vitamin E content in peanuts. Somebody pass the peanut butter!
Yet another super star nut that isn’t really a nut! Almonds are related to stone fruits cherries, peaches, and apricots, and similar to those fruits the almond tree grows fruits with stone-like seeds… and those seeds are what we know and love as almonds!
Much like peanuts, almonds are a great source of protein, providing 6 grams per one-ounce serving. And that protein content isn’t the only good news for vegetarians, almonds are also a very good source of calcium. In fact, they’re the nut that boasts the highest calcium content with about 75mg per ounce – that’s about 25% of the calcium in a glass of cow’s milk. But almonds also provide a hefty dose of dietary fiber (when eaten with the skins on) at 4 grams per serving, which is more than any other tree nut.
As a part of a healthy diet, almonds are credited with playing a role in heart health. They’re rich in monounsaturated fats, which are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Additionally, almonds are a good source of antioxidant vitamin E. Need an excuse to eat your almonds skin-on? The flavonoids found in almond skins work in harmony with vitamin E to deliver a quick one-two doubly effective antioxidant punch.
Almonds may also be helpful in diabetes prevention as the unique combination of protein and dietary fiber helps regulate blood sugar and moderate the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream.
Finally a nut that’s actually a nut! Walnuts have earned themselves a place on my everyday superfoods list, and for good reason: they are the richest plant-based source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and role in heart health.
As far as protein goes, walnuts are a little leaner, offering up 4 grams per one-ounce serving. The ratio of protein to dietary fiber is a good one, with 2 grams of dietary fiber per serving. This protein/fiber combination is helpful with blood sugar regulation and stability, and for this reason walnut consumption has been associated with a reduction in type 2 diabetes risk.
As with almonds, consuming walnuts with the skin intact is proven to be more beneficial than without, as the skin contains high amounts of antioxidant phenolic compounds such as tannins, flavonoids, and phenolic acids. The skins can contribute a slightly bitter flavour which is why recipes often encourage removing it, but if you can learn to love the taste you’ll be better for it.
Due to their rich complement of antioxidants, walnuts have been shown to not only have anti-inflammatory properties, but also lower the risk of oxidative stress. This combination of properties has been associated with a reduced risk of both breast and prostate cancer. Walnuts have also been indicated as a food that assists in lowering both total and LDL cholesterol. Walnuts for the win!
If you’re in the market for a leaner nut, pistachios are just the ticket – they contain the fewest calories and the lowest fat content of any nut. Still, this green little wonder packs a serious nutritional punch, rich with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, protein, and many essential vitamins and minerals.
Pistachios contain about 6 grams of protein per one-ounce serving, and just shy of 3 grams of dietary fiber. These little green nuts are also packed with B vitamins, including vitamin B6, folate, biotin, and riboflavin.
In addition to heart-healthy fats, pistachios are also rich in potassium and magnesium. Every cell in our bodies depend on magnesium in order to function, including bones, nervous system, hormones, and cardiovascular system. In fact, the highest concentration of magnesium is found in our hearts and brains, which is why it’s so important. Potassium is vital for maintaining normal blood pressure, and for our kidney health.
All of that is pretty amazing, but my favourite thing about pistachios is that they’re so great for portion-controlled snacks. If you buy them in-shell it takes longer to eat them, and the discarded shells provides us with visual feedback letting us know how many we’ve eaten, which can help with more mindful snacking. Perfect!
Brazil nuts get the boasting rights of being the largest nuts, which means there aren’t very many of them in a serving – just 5 or 6 nuts comprise a one-ounce serving. And they’re not just big in stature – Brazil nuts are the highest in both total fat and saturated fat per serving of any nut. This makes Brazil nuts a less heart-healthy choice than other nuts, but they still make it on our list of wonder nuts because: selenium.
Selenium is a nutritionally essential mineral that plays a critical role in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage and infection. Get this – you can meet the recommended daily intake of selenium by eating just one Brazil nut a day!
These super nuts should be consumed in moderation, however. Not just for their higher (than other nuts) saturated fat content, but also because a full (one-ounce) serving of Brazil nuts contains up to eight times the selenium you need in a day. Recent research has indicated that chronic high intakes of selenium, including from consuming too many Brazil nuts, could lead to selenium toxicity, which is linked to severe gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms.
A couple of Brazil nuts per day as a part of a mixture of healthy and delicious nuts is more than adequate to meet your selenium requirements!
Mixed nuts photo via Shutterstock