DEAR DOCTOR K: You’ve mentioned nuts as a healthy snack in previous columns. I thought nuts were high in fat and calories.
DEAR READER: Nuts are high in fat and calories, and they are also a great food. Am I nuts?
As we’ve often said in this column, there are “good fats” and “bad fats.” Nuts mainly have the former. The “good fats” are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Those fats are essential and deliver lots of health benefits, as I’ll discuss in more detail. And nuts have relatively few “bad fats” — artery-clogging saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.
With small portion sizes, you can keep the calories in check. I love nuts, and the only way I can discipline myself is to buy them prepackaged in small bags and limit myself to no more than one or two bags per day.
Nuts pack a nutritious punch of protein, vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, potassium and fiber. Almonds, walnuts, peanuts (though peanuts actually are a legume, not a nut), cashews and hazelnuts are all good choices. (On my website, AskDoctorK.com, I’ve put a table listing the amounts of calories, fat and protein in a variety of nuts.)
Nuts contain very little carbohydrate. Fats of all types are better at satisfying your appetite than carbs. Unlike chips and other high-carbohydrate snacks, nuts don’t leave you hungry right away. As a result, you’re less likely to overeat.
Even though nuts are high in calories, people who eat them more frequently are less likely to gain weight or be obese. How can that be? Weight loss is about eating fewer calories (and increasing physical activity). So, if nuts make you feel full, perhaps you’ll eat less.
Nuts seem to protect against heart disease as well. Switching to a nut-filled diet tends to improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. These changes may translate into real benefits: In observational studies, people who eat more nuts have lower rates of heart disease.
Nuts may help with diabetes, too. Normally, blood sugar spikes after we eat. Those post-meal spikes contribute to diabetes in people vulnerable to getting it, and these spikes must be controlled in people who already have diabetes. Nuts don’t cause blood sugar to spike. What’s more, nuts can blunt the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar.
There are lots of ways to incorporate nuts into your diet. Add almonds or walnuts to your cereal or low-fat yogurt. Toss them into a pasta dish, or use finely chopped nuts in place of breadcrumbs as a coating for chicken or fish.