Nuts are a darling of the nutrition world, endorsed as a healthy food by the American Dietetic Association and Harvard School of Public Health. Mother Nature packs an impressive array of nutrients into these little nuggets, including vitamins, minerals, protein and heart-healthy fat. But that same fat can potentially cause weight gain if you overindulge in this otherwise healthy food.
To enjoy nuts without risking a muffin top or love handles, limit your portion sizes to the standard serving size of 30 grams, or roughly 1 ounce. Since weighing nuts before you eat them is a bit of a killjoy, you can estimate. If you have a measuring cup handy, 1/3 cup of shelled, whole nuts is roughly equivalent to a 1-ounce serving. No measuring cup? No problem. A small, level handful of nuts approximates a 1-ounce serving. Because your hands may be larger or smaller than average, use a measuring cup initially to get the portion size right. Pour the measured nuts into your hand to get an idea of what a serving looks like for future reference.
Nuts aren't as high in calories as you might think. A 1-ounce serving of shelled, whole nuts contains roughly 160 to 200 calories. Almonds, cashews, pistachios and peanuts are on the low end with 160 to 165 calories per serving. Almonds and peanuts are not nuts -- an almond is a fruit and a peanut is a legume -- but many people classify them as nuts, and they make solid additions to a healthful diet. Pecans, walnuts, macadamias and Brazil nuts come in on the high end with 185 to 200 calories per serving. To put things into perspective, a 1-ounce serving of nuts contains roughly the same number of calories as a cup of grape juice, low-fat cottage cheese, corn, mashed potatoes or lima beans.
Nuts are part of the protein food group, along with meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, seeds, soy products, beans and peas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets daily serving recommendations for this group according to protein content using a measurement called the "ounce equivalent." The term sounds complicated but the concept is simple: An ounce equivalent of a specific food provides 7 grams of dietary protein. The USDA recommends that moderately-active women eat 5 1/2 ounce equivalents of protein daily through age 30, and five ounce equivalents thereafter. Because nuts contain a high concentration of protein, each 1-ounce serving counts for two ounce equivalents. For example, if you eat an ounce of nuts tomorrow, you only need another three or 3 1/2 ounce equivalents of protein to meet your daily requirement. As long as you're not overeating from the protein or other food groups, munching on some nuts is unlikely to cause a pudgy tummy.
To avoid overdoing it with nuts, don't eat straight from the package; pour a serving into a small bowl instead. And don't reach for the nuts when you're really hungry, like before dinner. Overeating when you're famished is just too tempting. Try sprinkling some nuts onto vegetables, salads, rice or pasta dishes for some added pizzazz and nutrition. To save money, buy raw nuts in bulk and roast them yourself in the oven.
- American Dietetic Association: Go Nuts for Nutrition
- Harvard School of Public Health: Nuts for the Heart
- American Dietetic Association: Does the Fat in Nuts Make Them Unhealthy?
- North Carolina Nutrition Network: The Secret to Serving Size Is in Your Hand
- USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Energy (kcal) Content of Selected Foods per Common Measure
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: How Much Food from the Protein Foods Group is Needed Daily?
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: What Counts as an Ounce Equivalent in the Protein Foods Group?
Dr. Tina M. St. John owns and operates a health communications and consulting firm. She is also an accomplished medical writer and editor, and was formerly a senior medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. St. John holds an M.D. from Emory University School of Medicine.