Written by Lori Bumbaco, MS, RDN, CSO, LDN, Oncology Dietitian
Nuts are actually the seeds of plants. Most are the seeds of trees; peanuts are the exception because they are the seeds of a legume. Nuts are flavorful little packages containing a hefty dose of nutrition. From protein and fiber to vitamins and minerals, all nuts offer a nutrient-packed way to enhance our diet. Nuts even contain unique cancer fighters called phytochemicals, which optimize cancer protection.
You may have heard that we shouldn’t eat too many nuts because they are high in calories. You may have also heard that nuts are high in fats, however, nuts are good sources of healthy fats (such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and are low in (unhealthy) saturated fats. Although nuts are high in energy and fats, eating nuts is not connected with weight gain. In fact, based on large population studies, eating more nuts has been associated with lower body weight.
When included as part of a weight loss diet, nuts have been shown to enhance weight loss and fat loss in the abdominal region. This is because the fat in nuts is not fully digested and absorbed by the body. When less fats are absorbed, it means that less energy from nuts is absorbed too. Research suggests that 10-15% of the calories in nuts are not absorbed by the body after we eat them. In addition, nuts help to suppress our hunger. As a result, when we include nuts in our diet, we tend to eat less overall for the day. This effect is due to the protein, fat, and fiber content of nuts. That combination of nutrients is linked with satisfaction.
You might be wondering which nuts are healthiest. The answer is that all of them are great choices! The nutrient content of nuts may differ slightly, but each offer benefits to our health when consumed in a cancer protective diet. Nuts have compounds that work like antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals before they can cause damage to the body. Free radicals play a part in cancer development because they damage our cells’ DNA. Anti-inflammatory compounds reduce the formation of free radicals by putting the brakes on cell signals that support and promote cancer development.
There is an emerging area of research that points to the benefits of certain microorganisms that live in our digestive system. Did you know that our gut microbiota is thought to be implicated in the risk of getting some cancers? There are unique types of fiber that nourish the gut microbes and seem to support health. Nuts are among the many plant foods that have varying amounts and types of fiber. Research now shows that certain compounds like phytochemicals, which are in nuts, may interact directly with the microbes in our gut.
As mentioned, all nuts offer healthful nutrients to our diet. Specifically, each have something to offer and when combined provide a nutrient synergy. Almonds are a good source of vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. They have compounds that exert antioxidant properties and also have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Peanuts are technically legumes, and provide protein, B vitamins, and iron. Peanuts have resveratrol, noted to be protective against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Pecans also contain B vitamins and are an excellent source of vitamin E. Pecans have carotenoids as well as EGCG, that link to improving markers for metabolic disorders. Pistachios offer protein, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and are packed with phyochemicals. If you inspect a pistachio, you’ll notice green, yellow, and purple hues. Those colors mean that you’re eating carotenoids, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanidins. Last but not least, walnuts are a significant source of healthy fat, ALA. It is an omega 3 fat that is linked with improved cardiovascular health, beneficial to the gut microbiota, and may slow the growth of certain cancer types.
Nuts are an easy and delicious way to add nutrients to our diet. They are the quintessential example of a snack food that is not processed, and including a variety of them with meals is a tasty way to increase the cancer fighting compounds every day.