Low-fat diets were once the rage. Remember those days? Products on supermarket shelves proudly proclaimed they were fat-free or low-fat, but the pendulum has swung, and sugar is on the hot seat, while fat in moderation is back on the table.
Any nutritionist will tell you that you need a certain amount of fat in your diet. Fatty acids make up the outer membranes of your cells and are essential for brain health and energy. Plus, your skin and hair would be dry if you didn’t get some fat in your diet. Additionally, you need dietary fat to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.
The Focus is on Healthy Fats
These days, talk has shifted to “healthy fats.” Nutritional guidelines recommend choosing monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats over saturated fat. Meat and dairy products contain predominantly saturated fats, while plant-based foods are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
One way to get monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is to eat nuts. Nuts are an excellent source of healthy fats, including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. If you compare nuts to snack options, like chips, nuts are the clear winner. They’re easy on your blood sugar, and studies show that nut eaters have lower levels of inflammatory markers that contribute to health problems, such as cardiovascular disease.
Research reveals that nut eaters have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, studies reveal that eating nuts most days of the week may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, especially when you replace carby snacks, like chips, with nuts. That bodes well for your heart since poor blood sugar control is damaging to your heart and blood vessels.
Despite their high-calorie content, nuts are also nutritious. Being rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, nuts are a package of nutritional goodness. Now, back to fats. Which nuts contain the healthiest fats, and are there ones you should avoid? Let’s look at what makes monounsaturated fats unique, and which nuts contain more of these fats.
Monounsaturated Fats and Tree Nuts
Fats are made up of a glycerol backbone with fatty acids attached. The type of fatty acid attached to glycerol distinguishes monounsaturated fats from polyunsaturated and saturated fats. Monounsaturated fats contain fatty acids with a single double bond, whereas polyunsaturated fats have many double bonds and saturated fats have none.
Studies link monounsaturated fats with improvements in LDL-cholesterol, a type of protein that carries cholesterol through the body. Why does this matter? High LDL cholesterol is an established risk factor for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Evidence suggests people should consume more monounsaturated fats in place of saturated fats from animal sources for heart health.
Excellent sources of monounsaturated fats include avocados and olive oil. Certain nuts contain substantial quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids. The tree nut with the greatest monounsaturated fat is the macadamia nut. It’s followed closely by the hazelnut.
These are two nuts that people eat less often than other common tree nuts, but they can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Macadamia nuts are also the tree nut lowest in carbohydrates, making them an excellent choice if you have diabetes or prediabetes.
You’ll also get monounsaturated fat when you munch on pecans and almonds. However, almonds and pecans contain a higher ratio of polyunsaturated fats to monounsaturated fats. According to the American Heart Association, polyunsaturated fats also lower LDL cholesterol and are heart healthy.
Polyunsaturated Fats and Tree Nuts
As mentioned, polyunsaturated fats are built from fatty acids with multiple double bonds. The fatty acids in polyunsaturated fats are of two main types: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are a better choice, as they are linked with anti-inflammatory benefits. Most people get far more omega-6 fatty acids in their diet than omega-3s since many ultra-processed foods are made with oils rich in omega-6s. By increasing the quantity of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids in your diet, you lower whole-body inflammation.
Tree nuts contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but some contain more omega-3s than others. Walnuts are the best source of omega-3s among the tree nuts. If walnuts aren’t to your liking, pecans are also a respectable source of omega-3s but fall well short of what you get when you eat walnuts.
Other tree nuts contain far lower quantities of omega-3’s. That doesn’t mean they aren’t healthy or that they don’t reduce inflammation. Nuts are an excellent source of antioxidants that fight oxidative stress and reign in inflammation.
The Bottom Line
Don’t forget that nuts also provide fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. You can’t go wrong with any of them! Worried about their high-calorie content? Studies show you don’t absorb all the fat from nuts. As much as 20% of the calories you eat from nuts pass through your body without being absorbed. This may explain why nut eaters tend to be leaner.
Still, practice portion control. A 1 oz serving of nuts contains between 160 and 200 calories. Set aside a handful and put away the container. Also, avoid honey-roasted nuts and those with a sugar coating, as they contain more calories and are higher in sugar. Enjoy the health benefits of nuts!
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