The surprising nutritional benefits of nuts

A man eating porridge

Matt LambertAre you a health nut? Increasing numbers of people are opting to snack on almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts, so our Health and Promotion Manager, Matt Lambert, examines the health benefits.

There has been a rising trend in people buying and eating more nuts and nut-based products over the years – partly because many of us are looking for healthier snacks. And with more people choosing to go vegetarian, vegan, or just eating more plant-based food, nuts are a convenient, cost-effective and nutritious option.

Is a peanut really a nut?

Cashew nut fruits growing on tree

Peanuts are the most popular type of nut that we eat here in the UK – although strictly speaking, peanuts are a part of the legume family, the same as lentils and peas! Because most nuts are grown on trees or bushes, they are referred to as tree nuts – they include varieties such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts.

Although we’re eating more nuts, it’s important that we choose nuts that are plain rather than nuts that are salted or coated in seasoning, which can often mean added sugar.

People who eat more plain nuts have been shown to have a better-quality diet overall, and while several studies have found that people who eat more nuts tend to have a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, and death from all causes, it’s important to remember that nuts are only one aspect of our diet that can impact our disease risk.

Are nuts fattening?

While some health authorities recommend eating nuts as part of a healthy diet, some people might feel wary to choose nuts as a snack because of the concern that they are “fattening”. Nuts are high in fat, but most of the fat in nuts is unsaturated – what is often referred to as a “good” fat. Research has shown that eating a small amount does not cause weight gain – in fact, studies have shown that those who eat nuts actually have a lower risk of weight gain!

If you are choosing nuts as a healthy snack, it’s best to keep your portion size to a small handful of around 30g. If you buy a bigger pack (which is often cheaper), take a portion out then put the pack away – nuts are easy to snack on, so it can lead to eating more than planned.

Which nutrients are found in nuts?

Nuts are a nutritional powerhouse and contain a wide range of nutrients that can have health-promoting benefits, such as:

  • healthy unsaturated fats
  • plant-based protein
  • compounds such as polyphenols
  • vitamins such as E and B
  • minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and selenium

A study funded by World Cancer Research Fund found that selenium, a mineral found in abundance in Brazil nuts, may play a role in the prevention of prostate cancer.

Nuts are also a source of fibre. Our research shows that diets rich in fibre – found in foods such as nuts, seeds, wholegrains like brown rice, pulses like beans, and fruit and vegetables – help to lower our risk of developing bowel cancer. Fibre also helps us to maintain a healthy weight, and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important ways we can reduce our cancer risk.

Nuts are a fantastic food, either as a snack or added to meals. They contain a variety of nutrients that are beneficial to our health and can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet to help reduce our risk of cancer.

How to incorporate nuts into your diet

Try frying or toasting nuts in the oven to enhance their flavour – this can work well for almonds, hazelnuts and pecans. Adding spices like paprika or black pepper can help give plain nuts a flavour boost. For something sweeter, add a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Try adding chopped nuts to stir-fries, curries, salads, cereals and yoghurts. They can also be blended into smoothies alongside other fruit and veg  – frozen or fresh.

Nut butters such as cashew and almond butter have gained popularity. These can be great on wholegrain toast or in sandwiches, or as a dip with chopped vegetables. Aim to choose varieties with no added sugar or salt.

If you are trying to eat more plant-based food, blending cashew nuts can be a great way of adding creaminess and thickness to a dish without adding dairy – great in sauces or soups.

Why not try some of our delicious nutty recipes?