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HFG guide to nuts

Reviewed by our expert panel
HFG guide to nuts

Eaten as a snack, sprinkled over salads or baked in treats, nutritionist Lisa Yates explains which nuts are best for you.

Nuts are nature’s own vitamin pill with each type containing a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. In general, it is the combination of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, plant-based omega-3s, fibre, vitamin E, copper, manganese and other antioxidants in nuts which help control blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. As an added bonus, all nuts are gluten-free. But which nuts offer which health benefits?

While technically not a nut (they are a legume – like chickpeas and soy beans), peanuts are often treated as nuts in cooking.

  • Nutrition: Peanuts are high in protein and fibre. Their brownish red skins are rich in antioxidants, such as resveratrol, and they also add folate, with around 30 micrograms per handful.
  • Benefits: Despite being a legume, peanuts have similar nutrients and health benefits to nuts – research has found that they can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, they are cholesterol-lowering and they can even help with weight management.
  • Serving ideas: Raw or roasted fresh from the shell, tossed through Asian satays and stir-fries, or as an indulgent treat mixed with dark chocolate.
  • How many in a 30g handful? About 30 (720kJ)
  • Nutrition: Rich in the antioxidant manganese, a handful provides 50 per cent of your daily requirement.
  • Benefits: Pine nut oils have been shown to increase appetite-regulating hormones in the intestine, helping you stay fuller for longer – and reduce the amount of food eaten in a meal.
  • Serving ideas: Pine nuts are a traditional pesto ingredient. They are also great in sauces, roasts and salads.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 3 level tablespoons (750kJ)
  • Nutrition: Rich in low-GI carbohydrates, chestnuts are low in fat and contain vitamin C (both of which are unusual in other nuts) – a 30g handful provides 25 per cent of your recommended daily intake (RDI) for vitamin C.
  • Benefits: Great for those with diabetes, as they are low-GI.
  • Serving ideas: Roasted is best. You can also use chestnut meal as a gluten-free alternative to flour in cooking and baking.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 4 (270kJ)
  • Nutrition: Almonds are incredibly rich in vitamin E with a handful providing over 70 per cent of your RDI. Almonds are also a non-dairy source of calcium, containing 75mg per handful.
  • Benefits: Research shows eating almonds daily lowers blood cholesterol.
  • Serving ideas: Try them natural, dry-roasted, blanched, flaked, slivered, crushed and ground (almond meal). Add almonds to baked goods, eat them raw or toss them into salads or stir-fries.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 25 (765kJ)
  • Nutrition: These are high in plant proteins, plant sterols and healthy fats and contain the antioxidant resveratrol, which is also found in red wine.
  • Benefits: One to two handfuls a day reduces LDL, or ‘bad’ blood cholesterol.
  • Serving ideas: Toss into salads, Middle Eastern dishes with rice or couscous, or use in place of pine nuts in pesto.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 20 (800kJ)
  • Nutrition: Rich in copper and magnesium, this source of iron contains some low-GI carbohydrates.
  • Benefits: For those undergoing food intolerance testing, cashews are usually allowed in elimination diets.
  • Serving ideas: Sprinkle over stir-fries, curries, salads or just eat cashews raw as a snack.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 15 (730kJ)
  • Nutrition: These nuts are the highest in healthy monounsaturated fats, contain manganese and fibre and, like other nuts, are low in sodium.
  • Benefits: Research shows that eating 40g to 90g macadamias daily reduces cholesterol, inflammation and blood clotting.
  • Serving ideas: Add macadamias to fish dishes, salads, muesli and desserts.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 15 (900kJ)
  • Nutrition: These contain natural plant omega-3s and have a high antioxidant capacity.
  • Benefits: Studies show one to two handfuls of pecans a day lowers blood cholesterol and can help prevent clogged arteries.
  • Serving ideas: Stir pecans through green beans for a warm bean salad or spray with a little oil and bake with rosemary leaves, a sprinkle of sugar and cayenne.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 20 (830kJ)
  • Nutrition: Brazil nuts are the richest dietary source of the antioxidant mineral selenium, with 1917mg/100g, and just two to three nuts a day provides 100 per cent of your RDI. If you are eating them every day, no more than two or three is recommended.
  • Benefits: Selenium (and its antioxidant properties) can help prevent cellular damage from free radicals.
  • Serving ideas: Eat them raw, or for a stuffing, crush them and mix with herbs to add more flavour.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 8 (860kJ)
  • Nutrition: Rich in natural plant omega-3s including the essential fatty acid, alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA).
  • Benefits: These have anti-inflammatory effects and are good for people with diabetes.
  • Serving ideas: Add to baked goods, Waldorf or other salads, or chopped and mixed into dips.
  • How many in a 30g handful? 12 halves (880kJ)
  • Nutrition: An excellent source of vitamin E, copper and manganese, plus their brown skins are rich in antioxidants.
  • Benefits: Hazelnuts are rich in fibre – which is essential for a healthy bowel.
  • Serving ideas: Often mixed with chocolate, they also provide great flavour and balance in salads and chilli pasta dishes!
  • How many in a 30g handful? 20 (785kJ)

“But aren’t nuts fattening?”

Contrary to popular belief, people who eat nuts regularly are more likely to be at a healthy weight. Not all the fat in nuts is absorbed so some of it passes through you. Plus, the combination of protein, fibre and healthy fats helps control appetite, making them a great snack.

How much, how often?

Despite nuts being healthy, they are high in kilojoules, so it is important to watch your portions. To enjoy the benefits of nuts, 30g a day – which is generally equivalent to a small handful – is a good amount to aim for. Choose unsalted nuts over the salted versions.

If, like many of us, you find it hard to stop at one small handful, consider storing your nuts in separate, portion-controlled sealable bags – that way, you won’t find yourself munching through the whole bag at once!

First published: May 2011

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