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New Zealand and Australian dietary guidelines recommend we eat 30g of nuts - a small handful - each day. But many of us know nuts are high in calories and fat.
So should we be eating nuts or will they make us gain weight?
In short, the answer is yes, we should eat them, and no, they won’t make us gain weight if eaten in moderate amounts.
The fats in nuts are mostly the ‘‘good’’ fats. And aside from that, our bodies don’t actually absorb all the fat found in nuts. But we do absorb the nutrients they provide.
Nuts do contain fat, and the amount of fat varies between nut types. For example, a 30g serving of raw cashews or pistachios contains around 15g of fat, whereas the same amount of raw macadamias contains around 22g of fat.
There are different kinds of fats in our diet and some are better for us than others.
Nuts contain mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are known as ‘‘good fats’’. They can help lower cholesterol when we eat them in place of saturated fats.
The type of fats present varies between nuts. For example, walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fats, whereas other types of nuts, such as hazelnuts and macadamias, have more monounsaturated fat.
Even if the type of fat in nuts is good for us, they are still high in fat and calories. But this doesn’t mean we should be avoiding them to manage our weight.
Studies that looked at people’s eating habits and body weight over a long period have found people who regularly eat nuts tend to gain less weight over time than people who don’t.
We see a similar pattern in clinical studies that asked people to include nuts in their diets and then looked at the effects on body weight.
A review of more than 30 studies examined the effects of eating nuts on body weight. It did not find people who ate nuts had increased their body weight, body mass index (BMI) or waist circumference, compared with a control group of people who did not eat nuts.
In fact, one study found when people ate a pattern of food aimed at weight loss, the group of people who ate nuts lost more body fat than those who did not eat nuts.
There are several possible explanations for why eating nuts does not seem to lead to weight gain.
We do not absorb all of the fat in nuts.
The fat in nuts is stored in the nut’s cell walls, which don’t easily break down during digestion. As a result, when we eat nuts, we don’t absorb all of the fat.
Some of the fat instead is passed out in our faeces. The amount of calories we absorb from eating nuts might be 5% to 30% less than what we had previously thought.
Nuts increase the amount of calories we burn. Not only do we not absorb all the calories in nuts, but eating them may increase the amount of energy and fat we burn, helping us maintain or lose weight.
Nuts help us feel full for longer. As well as fat, they are rich in protein and fibre and help to keep us feeling full after we eat them, meaning we are likely to eat less at later meals. Recent studies suggest providing people with nuts helps improve the overall quality of the types of foods they eat.
Overall, the evidence suggests nuts are a healthy, nutritious snack. We can confidently include the recommended 30g of nuts a day in a healthy diet, without worrying about our waistlines.
- The Conversation
- Authors: Elizabeth Neale, Career Development Fellow, University of Wollongong; Sze-Yen Tan, senior lecturer in nutrition science, Deakin University; and Yasmine Probst, senior lecturer, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong