How to eat nuts the healthy way

Nuts are healthy, but limit portions to prevent calorie overload and use them as meal enhancers.

Nuts can seem like forbidden fruit to dieters. A heaping handful might contain up to 10% of the daily caloric needs for a medium-sized man. And the generous dusting of salt on packaged snack nuts says "beware" to anyone trying to control high blood pressure.

But nuts are worth the "risks" if you know how to eat them. Nuts are a good source of key nutrients, healthy fats, and protein. They can jazz up salads and side dishes, adding crunchy flavor.

The key is to consume nuts in a way that delivers health benefits without the weight gain. That means limiting portions and eating nuts instead of, not in addition to, certain other foods. "Nuts are a great source of good fats and protein," says Dr. Helen Delichatsios, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "But they should not be added onto everything else that you eat."

Nutrients in commonly consumed nuts (1 ounce)

Nut

Calories

Fat (grams)

Protein (grams)

Almond

168

15

6.2

Brazil

184

18.6

4

Cashew

161

13

4.3

Hazelnut

182

17.5

4.2

Macadamia

201

21.4

2.2

Pecan

200

20.1

2.6

Pistachio

160

13

6

Walnut

184

18.3

4.3

Health benefits

A one-ounce portion of nuts is roughly a quarter-cup. For almonds, that's about 18 to 22 individual nuts, packing 168 calories. Nuts are low in saturated fat, so consuming them instead of animal protein sources can help to lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. They contribute fiber, potassium, and calcium to your diet.

Although nuts are a healthy protein, you can't simply substitute nuts for meat, ounce for ounce. If you did, your waistline would pay a steep price. For example, a lean 4-ounce chicken filet has around 100 calories, but 4 ounces of walnuts contains 740 calories.

However, substituting a 1-ounce portion of nuts for equivalent small portions of red and processed meat is a good move, according to major based at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, men who ate meat-rich diets tended to die younger (mostly from cancer and heart disease). But for each serving of meat replaced with a serving of nuts, the risk of premature death dropped 20%, compared with that of men who continued to eat meat.

The message is not that you should ban meat completely from your diet. Instead, try to favor lean poultry over red meat—especially cured or smoked meats—and consume moderate amounts of nuts instead of meat a few times a week.

Nuts to round out meals

But where should you toss those modest handfuls of nuts? Dr. Delichatsios has a few suggestions.

First, reboot your mental image of nuts as a standalone snack in a bowl. It's true that a small handful of nuts can kill hunger pangs between meals, but Dr. Delichatsios suggests you also use nuts to "round out" the nutritional mix of your meals.

If you are trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight, the fiber and fats in nuts can allow you to leave your meals with a fuller, more satisfying feeling.

"If you are trying to lose weight and all you have in your salad are lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and low-fat dressing, you may be hungry later," Dr. Delichatsios explains. "Nuts are a good way to make it more filling; they round out the meal. Otherwise it might not be calorically dense enough and leave you hungry."

Breakfast is a good time to go nuts. Throw some in your cereal or yogurt with fruit. At lunch, toss a handful into a meatless salad.

Nuts for dinner?

At dinner, nuts are a nutritious addition to grain-based side dishes like wild or brown rice and mushrooms. Or you can use them to create an appealing meatless main dish.

Dr. Delichatsios, in her practice as a primary care physician at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, focuses on healthy eating. One thing she does is get a group of her patients together for nutrition information sessions and cooking demonstrations.

During the sessions, Dr. Delichatsios explains how to shop for, prepare, and store the kinds of foods that can have a positive impact on common health conditions. Nuts are usually on the menu. A typical meal would consist of some sort of cooked whole grain (such as quinoa or brown rice), beans, or legumes (chickpeas, lentils). Add to it cut up vegetables, fresh herbs, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon juice. "Throw in some nuts and you have a very delicious, appealing, filling, satisfying meal," Dr. Delichatsios says.

One of the impediments to getting people to eat nuts or whole grains in healthy meals, Dr. Delichatsios says, is just the lack of knowledge or experience with preparing them in such a way that anyone would actually want to eat them. "It requires some teaching and education."

After the healthy meal, though, don't fill the snack bowl with nuts and head for the TV, Dr. Delichatsios cautions. "You can take in 500 calories without even thinking about it."