What’s your favorite nut? No matter which one strikes your fancy, nuts have it all over other carby snacks like chips and pretzels. In fact, numerous studies show nut eaters enjoy a number of health benefits. For example, nut consumption is linked with a lower risk of heart disease and reduced mortality from all causes.
In one study, participants who ate nuts seven or more times a week enjoyed a 20% reduction in mortality. That’s compelling! Although studies looking at nut consumption and health are observational studies, with so much research showing similar benefits, the case for eating nuts is growing stronger.
What is it that makes nuts such a healthy snack? They’re a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and heart-healthy fatty acids. Plus, research suggests that nuts contain ingredients that reduce inflammation and have favorable effects on blood lipids. You can’t say that about chips or pretzels! Plus, diabetic nut lovers tend to have better blood sugar control.
Now that you know that nuts are good for your health, you might wonder which to stock up on. Is one nut better for your health than another?
Battle of the Healthiest Nut
Walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and macadamias are some of the many nuts competing for your attention. Which has the most health benefits? Each of these nuts offers its own unique health benefits. For example, Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of a trace mineral called selenium. In fact, a study showed eating two Brazil nuts daily was as effective at raising blood levels of selenium as a selenium supplement.
Why be concerned about selenium anyway? You need this antioxidant mineral, in very small amounts for thyroid function and a healthy immune system. It’s safest to get selenium from food sources like Brazil nuts rather than supplements since too much selenium can be toxic.
Walnuts: The Brain Health Nut
Walnuts are shaped like a brain for a reason – they’re one of the top nuts that keep your brain healthy. Research shows chomping down on walnuts, with their high level of brain-healthy fatty acids, slows down cognitive decline associated with aging. In fact, one study showed walnuts improved performance on a test of cognitive function – not to mention the fatty acids in walnuts are also heart healthy.
Another reason walnuts are special – they’re the only nut that contains significant sources of plant-based omega-3s. Research also suggests that walnuts help to tame inflammation, including inflammation inside the walls of blood vessels, the kind that leads to heart attack and stroke.
Highest in Antioxidants
If it’s antioxidants you’re after, pecans and walnuts are your best bets. Although all nuts contain some antioxidants, walnuts, and pecans top the list. Which has the most antioxidant power isn’t clear. One study showed pecans are highest in antioxidants while another gives the prize to walnuts. If you have to choose based on antioxidant benefits, select walnuts. There’s some evidence that the antioxidants in walnuts are the more potent than those in other nuts.
Blood Vessel Function
Pistachios get accolades for the impact they have on blood vessel health. Research shows pistachios improve endothelial function, which essentially means they reduce arterial stiffness. That makes them a good nut to munch on if you have high blood pressure – but choose unsalted ones. If you’re sodium sensitive, as 10% of people are, salt can raise your blood pressure. Not to mention, studies show pistachios improve blood glucose control and can lower LDL-cholesterol by up to 12%.
Nuts and Heart Health
Pretty much any nut has heart-health benefits, but almonds win extra pounds since they supply about 40% of your daily requirement for vitamin E. Getting vitamin E naturally from food sources, not supplements, helps prevent oxidation of cholesterol, a problem that can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Worried about Your Waistline?
Despite the fact that nuts are relatively high in calories, researchers show nut eaters tend to have lower body weights than those who abstain from nuts. One reason may be the fact that as much as 20% of the fat (and calories) in some nuts, including almonds and pistachios, isn’t absorbed. Still, if you’re trying to control your weight, your best bet is pistachios where 48 pistachios will only set you back 160 calories. Buy them in the shell and you’ll eat them slower and ultimately consume less.
The highest calorie nuts are macadamias. Eleven macadamia nuts have around 200 calories. Despite their calorie density, macadamia nuts have the highest amount of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, the type you find in olive oil and avocados. So, enjoy this nut in moderation.
What about Peanuts?
Even though they’re not technically a “nut” but a legume, peanuts pack the same powerful health punch as tree nuts according to Harvard Health. In one study, researchers followed over 200,000 people around the world, taking note of their nut consumption. Those who ate the most peanuts were significantly less likely to die from heart disease and from ALL causes relative to those who ate the least peanuts.
Why peanuts? They’re less expensive than other nuts and easy to find. One precaution: buy packaged peanuts from major brands. Peanuts from foreign countries may be contaminated with aflatoxins, a type of fungus linked with cancer.
What about Cashews and Hazelnuts?
We mentioned the health benefits of all of the nuts with the exception of hazelnuts and cashews. Hazels nuts have favorable effects on blood lipids and also contain an amino acid called arginine that helps lower blood pressure. Therefore, they’re heart and blood vessels friendly. Cashews, on the other hand, don’t contain as much of the healthy fats found in other nuts, although it’s a good source of iron. If you had to choose the least healthy nut, cashews just might win the prize.
The Bottom Line
Fortunately, all nuts have some health benefits, particularly for the cardiovascular system. If forced to pick the healthiest nut, you can’t go wrong with walnuts. The nut with the least benefits? Probably cashews. Still, you can derive pleasure and benefits by eating a variety of nuts based on the current research. Your best bet? Eat a variety of nuts. Mix them together in a bowl and add seeds, like pumpkin and sunflower seeds, as well for satisfying snack. Watch your portions though by not eating out of the can or a large bowl. Set aside a reasonable portion and stick to it.
Harvard Health Publications. “Peanuts linked to same heart, longevity benefits as more pricey nuts”
Cornell University. College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Aflatoxins: Occurrence and Health Risks”
JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(5):755-766. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8347.
Medscape Multispecialty. “Nut Consumption Linked to Lower Mortality”
The World’s Healthiest Foods. “A Daily Brazil Nut Better than a Supplement for Selenium”
Medical Daily. “Fight Memory Loss By Eating Walnuts: Less Than A Handful A Day Maintains Cognitive Function”
NHANES. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging. 2014.
NBC News. Walnuts Have Double the Antioxidants of Other Nuts”
The Men’s Health Big Book of Food and Nutrition.
National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin E”
J Am Heart Assoc. 2016 January 25 [epub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.115.002771.
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