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Nuts Improve Diet Quality and Help Prevent Weight Gain
I made my bones early on by getting ripped while eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Bodybuilders everywhere were scratching their heads. More recently, an otherwise positive piece on 180degreehealth.com make fun of me for eating peanut butter every day. Well, I have news. Scientists from New Zealand and Australia have come to my rescue—finally—reporting that the protein and healthy fat in nuts help control hunger and lead to lasting weight loss. Whew, after all these years, I’m vindicated.
“Avoid concentrated calories.” That has been my cardinal rule for more than 30 years. Foods packed with calories make you fat, because it’s hard to eat them without getting more calories than you need. Nuts in moderation are an important exception. They actually help to prevent fat gain. Studies show an inverse or no relationship between nut consumption and weight gain or obesity. Moreover, weight control studies have shown that subjects eating a nut-enriched diet lose more weight than those eating a low fat or complex carbohydrate diets containing the same number of calories.
Several reasons have been offered why regular nut consumption results in lower than predicted weight gain. First, the high protein, fiber, and fat content of nuts give them a low glycemic value, which helps to control appetite and overeating. Secondly, the high unsaturated fat content of nuts may increase resting metabolism. Finally, some research suggests that a high proportion of the fat in nuts goes undigested; the energy content isn’t metabolized.
Researchers led by Siew Ling Tey, Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, designed a study to determine whether there is something unique about nuts, setting them apart from other energy-dense foods. There is--but it’s far from exotic.
For 12 weeks, subjects were fed daily portions (1100 calories) of hazelnuts, chocolate, or potato chips and compared to a control group receiving no snacks. Hazelnuts are a round hard-shell nut that grows on a hazel tree; it’s often called a filbert. You’d know if you saw it.
Surprisingly, average weight gain was less than predicted—for all four groups, the snack groups and the control group. The predicted weight gain was 2.8 kg (6.2 lbs), whereas the actual weight gain on average was only 0.64 kg (1.4 lbs). Interestingly, fat mass and percentage went down slightly for all four groups.
Apparently, all three snack groups compensated by eating less of other foods. “Overall there was an increase in fullness ratings, decrease in hunger, desire to eat, prospective consumption, and preoccupation with thoughts of food ratings after consuming the study snacks,” the researchers reported.
(It seems that high-calorie snacks eaten in measured amounts add to satisfaction and discourage overeating; see http://www.cbass.com/Breakfast.htm High-calorie snacks eaten without restriction would likely be another story.)
The one important difference in the nut group was diet quality. This was particularly evident for dietary fat. The percentage of energy from saturated fat was significantly lower in the nut group; mono- or poly-unsaturated fats were higher. The intake of vitamin E was also significantly higher for the nut group.
“These dietary changes support the findings of other studies, which have observed improvements in diet quality with the simple addition of nuts without any further healthy eating advice,” Tey and colleagues wrote. Such changes would be expected to reduce chronic disease, especially cardiovascular disease. Substituting an unhealthy snack such as chocolate bars or potato chips with a healthy snack such as nuts “could prevent approximately 6000 cardiovascular deaths in the UK,” the researchers added.
“This study supports the findings of other studies, which suggest that nuts can be incorporated into the diet without the risk of adverse weight gain and can improve diet quality,” the researches concluded.
The Tey study was reported in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in 2011, as article ID 357350.
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While I find this study a bit unsatisfying, at minimum it finds that nuts improve diet quality. It also suggests that nuts don’t encourage overeating.
The Tey study confirms that eating a tasty treat reduces the urge to overeat—and that nuts are an especially good choice.
A study reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that a component found in peanuts (piceatannol) has the ability to prevent immature fat cells from maturing into mature cells. I was hoping for confirmation in the Tey study, but didn’t get it.
Where nut butter is concerned, it is important to point out that some versions are better than others. Reduced-fat brands often have more sugar than full-fat versions. Other nut butters have added sugar, salt, or trans fats in order to add flavor and increase shelf life. Simple is best; look for nut butters made from nuts alone, and perhaps a little salt. Raw almond butter with nothing added is a favorite of mine; the down side is the high price. (I still like the “Naturally More” peanut butter, which has added protein and flaxseeds, plus a little sugar and salt—and no trans fat. The price is very reasonable.)
I eat nuts in measured amounts almost every day. I eat more nuts and nut butter now than when the bodybuilding world was emoting over my peanut-butter sandwich lunch. I have a mixture of almonds, walnuts, and pecans as part of my “Old Reliable” breakfast mixture. I eat Naturally More peanut butter at lunch several times a week, spread sparingly on a single piece of Ezekiel bread along with the vegetable stew mixture that Carol makes for me. I also have Naturally More with stewed apples on a slice of Ezekiel bread as my bedtime snack.
So, I’m still thriving on peanut butter—and other nuts. Hazelnuts are not on my menu, however.
(Factoid: Peanuts are a legume, not a nut. Think beans versus seeds, one grows underground and the other grows on trees. The “nut” in peanut is because, as a practical matter, peanuts are more like nuts than beans. In the U.S., peanuts and peanut butter are the most popular nut choice and comprise 67% of all nut consumption.)
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