Eating nuts can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Most nuts – including walnuts, cashew nuts, pecans, brazil nuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts – contain monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and other compounds that influence blood cholesterol levels. Peanuts, brazil nuts, almonds and hazelnuts can cause acute allergic reactions in some people.
Nuts are small dry fruit with a hard shell that grow on trees or bushes. The edible kernel (the contents of the shell) is usually also called a nut. Peanuts are in fact legumes (like peas or beans), but are called nuts because they have many characteristics that are similar to tree nuts.
Australian tree nut consumption is increasing. Research has shown that regular nut consumption as part of a healthy diet can protect against heart disease and diabetes, and may help with weight management.
If eaten as part of a healthy diet in which total energy intake is controlled, nuts do not contribute to overweight or obesity.
Nutrients in nuts
Different types of nuts contain different nutrients, but generally nuts contain:
- low levels of saturated fats
- high levels of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
- no cholesterol
- phytochemicals, such as phytoestrogens (isoflavones) and phenolic compounds, ellagic acid and flavonoids
- dietary fibre
- plant protein, which makes them a good alternative to meat. nuts are also high in the amino acid arginine
- vitamins E, B6, iron, niacin and folate
- minerals such as magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, copper, selenium and potassium.
Nuts and heart disease
Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is considered the ‘bad’ cholesterol. It can contribute to the build-up of plaque inside the arteries, which causes them to become narrow (atherosclerosis) and can lead to coronary heart disease. Increases in LDL cholesterol are mainly caused by excessive dietary intake of saturated fats.
Studies have shown frequent nut consumers have a 30 to 40 per cent lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease (CHD). Eating nuts helps lower LDL cholesterol levels and maintain healthy blood vessels, due to their high content of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, antioxidant phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, the vitamin folate and the amino acid arginine.
Not all nuts are healthy
Most nuts – including almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, brazil nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts and pistachios – contain mainly monounsaturated fats. However, coconut and palm nuts contain high levels of saturated fats, so consumption of these should be limited.
Roasted and salted nuts can be high in added fats and salt, which can be bad for your health, so raw and unsalted nuts are the best choices.
Nuts, overweight and obesity
Dietary fats are energy dense, with twice the amount of kilojoules per gram (37 kJ/g) than either protein (17 kJ/g) or carbohydrate (16 kJ/g). People who are overweight and obese can still benefit from the protective properties of nuts, without associated weight gain, if they swap them for existing food intake (in moderate amounts), instead of eating high-fat processed snack foods. A small handful of nuts are a nutritious snack.
Some nuts contain more fat than others. Almonds and chestnuts have comparatively low amounts of fat.
Nuts and allergy
Peanuts, and to a lesser extent brazil nuts, almonds and hazelnuts can cause acute allergy in some people, particularly young children. Acute allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Unlike many other allergies where children seem to grow out of it, peanut allergies tend to persist into adulthood.
There is no cure for allergies, so to manage nut allergies, nuts and food containing nuts must be avoided. It is important for people with nut allergies to read the label of products to check nuts are not present and beware of products stating ‘may contain traces of nuts.’ ‘Cross-contamination’ can occur during manufacturing of products when nut-free products are made in the same place as products with nuts.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women do not need to avoid consuming nuts for fear of causing an allergic reaction in their babies. Only women who are allergic to nuts should avoid them.
Recommended nut intake
Research has shed new light on the role of nuts in protecting us against heart disease and diabetes. As a result, recommendations regarding nuts have recently changed.
One serving of nuts is approximately 30 g or one third of a cup. The recommended intake is a handful (nine to 15 nuts) of a variety of unsalted nuts, especially walnuts and almonds, daily.
Nuts are not suitable for children under the age of three because they may cause choking. However, nut spreads or paste, such as peanut or almond butter, or oils can be included in young children’s diet.
Including nuts in your diet
Instead of eating a biscuit or piece of cake as a snack, try having a handful of plain unroasted nuts. Combining nuts with low-energy dense foods (such as vegetables) in meals is a good way to eat them – for example, in Asian-style dishes or added to a salad.
Vegetarians, vegans or people who avoid red meat should eat nuts regularly, because nuts are a good substitute for meat, fish and eggs (as they contain protein, fat, iron, zinc and niacin). For example, 30 grams of almonds, peanuts or seeds are equivalent to a serve of meat. One serve of meat is 65 grams of cooked lean red meat or 80 grams of cooked poultry or 100 grams of cooked fish fillet.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Dietitians Association of Australia Tel. 1800 812 942
Things to remember
- Nuts are a healthy food and a good source of protein and healthy fats.
- Nuts contain monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and other compounds that influence blood cholesterol.
- People who are overweight or obese can eat nuts in moderation instead of high-fat processed foods.
You might also be interested in:
- Fats and oils.
- Food variety and a healthy diet.
- Fruit and vegetables.
- Healthy eating for kids.
- Healthy eating tips.
Want to know more?
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Deakin University - Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences
Last reviewed: July 2013
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