Five Ways Eating Nuts Can Help You Lose Weight [Updated 2023]
Losing weight can appear to be a relatively simple affair- reduce your calorie intake to the point where you consume less calories than your body uses and you will lose weight. Easier said than done for a mountain of reasons, but this concept of striving for a negative energy balance is nonetheless the key rationale behind most weight loss endeavors. To that end, it makes sense to eliminate or restrict the intake of high calorie and high fat foods like nuts. A logical step since it would appear to be all too easy to go over your daily calorie limits by eating several handfuls of these tasty but high energy snacks. (See my post surprisingly unhealthy healthy foods) However reviews of all the studies on the matter clearly demonstrate that in this case you can indeed have your cake and eat it as they say. In fact, those who eat nuts as a regular part of their diet tend to have a lower BMI when compared to those who don’t.[1,2,3] Further complicating the issue is the rather contradictory finding that you can lose weight even if you consume more calories than your body needs if those calories come from nuts. In fact those who add nuts as a regular part of their weight loss protocols on average lose more weight than those who don’t. See also my article How To Eat More and Lose Weight. A somewhat puzzling and counter-intuitive happenstance but in this article we will take a look at the mechanisms behind this phenomenon and explore five ways that eating nuts can help you lose weight and stay on track with your diet.
As far back as the Stone Age, nuts have been a part of our diet with evidence of its regular consumption from archaeological sites dating back over 780,000 years. Recently, nuts have been recognized as an invaluable source of health promoting and heart friendly nutrients such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein and fiber. Nuts are also excellent sources of vitamin E, and those eating nuts on a regular basis have higher intakes of folate, beta-carotene, vitamin K, lutein, phosphorous, copper, selenium, potassium and zinc per 1000 calories when compared to those who do not.Also found in nuts are plant sterols and phytochemicals- whose benefits are not fully understood but seem to play a role along with the other nutrients in nuts in conferring some protection against cardiovascular disease. Thus, not surprisingly, more and more public health authorities recommend nuts be integrated into everyone’s diet. However since it is indeed a rich source of fats and a high calorie food, and as we mentioned previously, many avoid eating them for fear of gaining weight even though numerous studies show that this is not usually the case. Some of the nutritional concepts behind why nuts don’t contribute significantly to weight gain can seem to be somewhat involved and are seldom fully explained in the media. That being said, here are five of the ways that nuts can help you lose weight- attributes that hold true for all varieties of nuts.
How Nuts Help You Lose Weight- 1. All The Calories From Nuts Don’t Count
One of the most confusing aspects of understanding calories is that what we see on food labels doesn’t always reflect the true biologically available energy content of a food. For the most part, calorie values are relatively accurate but there are some exceptions and nuts happen to be one of them. The calorie values we use today are direct results from the work of Wilbur Atwater, arguably the father of nutritional sciences here in the United States. Who created the caloric standards that we use today in the early years of the 20th century to measure the energy yield of our foods. These values are well known by most with any familiarity with nutrition: Proteins and carbohydrates are estimated to have 4 Calories per gram, while fat, which is higher in energy yield has 9 Calories per gram. These numbers work remarkably well for most instances requiring energy estimation. However they don’t necessarily tell the whole story, especially where nuts and plant proteins are concerned. It might be a surprise to some to learn that according to Atwater’s measurements, most protein foods have a true calorie yield of 5.65 Calories per gram. (Learn more in my in depth article on How Calories Relate To Weight Loss)
The discrepancy lies in the fact that not all of the calories in a protein can be fully used by our bodies. Proteins contain high levels of nitrogen, which is not oxidized and instead is converted mostly into urea and excreted in urine. Thus some of the calories found in protein foods cannot be absorbed by our bodies and Atwater’s calorie values take this into account. That’s why the calorie estimates for protein foods are set at 4 Calories per gram and not 5.65 as it measures the biologically available calories. A corrective estimate is added to calorie values to compensate not just for proteins, but for all foods, as our digestive system never uses 100% of any food that we consume. Thus any calories contained in undigested particles don’t count towards our overall energy intake and this is accounted for in the calorie values of most foods to give an accurate assessment of how much energy our body can obtain by consuming them.
It isn’t a perfect system as it doesn’t accurately gauge the calorie values of nuts, which our body is unable to fully digest and so we are unable to absorb all of the calories from them.[7,8,9] Most foods are estimated to have a net loss of about 10% figured into their calorie values due to undigested particles, but studies have found the values for nuts to be 10 to 15% higher than those estimates. So assuming you needed 2,500 Calories to maintain your body weight and regularly ate let’s say 300 Calories above your metabolic requirements. If those calories came from regular foods you would, in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics see an increase in your body weight over time. However, if those extra calories came from eating nuts you wouldn’t gain weight since all the listed calories from nuts don’t count.
This inability to digest all the calories from nuts comes from the resistance of the parenchymal cell walls of nuts to the gut enzymes and bacteria that break down our foods. As a result, cells that aren’t broken down from chewing may pass through our bodies without releasing the high calorie fats they contain.[10,11] This is one reason you should choose whole nuts over nut butters as studies have found a much greater energy loss from whole nuts compared with nut butters.[12,13]
How Nuts Help You Lose Weight- 2.The More Nuts You Eat The Less You Eat
One of the main ways that nuts can help you lose weight is by reducing the size and frequency of eating. Eating nuts makes us feel not necessarily full, but satisfied. This high satiety effect goes a long way in reducing how much food we eat after consuming them and studies have found that between 55 to 75% of the calories added to our diets from nuts are offset by the subsequent reduction in energy intake from other foods. The fiber, protein, fats and phytochemicals in nuts all require significant processing in our mouths before swallowing. This coupled with a very distinct and energy rich flavor seems to go a long way in making us eat less and better adhere to weight loss diets.
How Nuts Help You Lose Weight- 3. The More You Chew The Less You Eat
Nuts aren’t like processed snacks that are designed to be easily eaten as they do require some degree of chewing to crush them into pieces small enough for us to swallow. Chewing activates mechanical nutrient and sensory signaling systems that appear to significantly affect our appetite. The act of chewing (mastication) breaks the parenchymal cell walls of the nut and liberates some (but not all) of the fats and proteins they encase. These nutrients promote the release of appetite related peptide hormones in the intestines such as cholecystokinin (CKK) and glucagon-like protein 1 (GLP-1) which in turn increases our feeling of satiety and prompts us to eat less.[18-20] Anyone who appreciates eating nuts can also attest to the fireworks that seem to go off in your mouth when you eat them. Apparently the sensory properties from the taste of nuts stimulates our salivary glands, digestive system and increases metabolism. Perhaps as a way our body prepares to get the most out of the nutrients it can derive from the foods we eat. A rather controlled clinical study found that chewing almonds 25 times (which is the average number for most people who eat almonds without trying to choke) elicits the strongest reduction in hunger and increased feeling of fullness two hours after eating, compared to chewing 10 or 40 times. Which leads us to believe there is no need to exaggerate chewing in order to reap the appetite suppressing attributes of nuts since regular chewing seems to do the trick.
How Nuts Help You Lose Weight- 4. Shells Can Slow You Down & Make You Eat Less
While pure peanut and nut butters are listed as a healthy additions to a wholesome diet, as we have mentioned previously, there is something to be said about the mechanics of chewing to help us get the most benefits out of eating nuts. This applies to many foods that are processed as well, since processing can remove some of the important properties of foods we have evolved to eat over the past several thousand years. Bear in mind that the human genome hasn’t changed much changed since the emergence of behaviorally modern humans some 150,000 years and so we are still genetically adapted to eat the foods consumed by our remote ancestors [17,18,19,20,21] and in their minimally processed or unprocessed forms as they have been eaten for countless generations. That being said, for optimal weight management it is always wise to eat foods like nuts in as natural a form as possible- and while eating shelled nuts may be more convenient, it is a better practice to eat nuts that are still in their shells. The form in which nuts are available is a very real factor in regards to our overall appetites, as the extra preparation time required slows down our rates of consumption. That it takes longer to eat nuts when they must be first removed from their shells increases the metabolic signals of satiety- which can thus reduce the amount of calories we consume in a sitting. An invaluable side effect for anyone trying to control their eating habits.
How Nuts Help You Lose Weight- 5 Nuts Taste Good & Act As A Replacement For Unhealthy Snacks
One of the most important, if not the most important aspects of any diet is sustainability, as results can only occur if you are consistently able to adhere to an energy reduced diet.[23,24] Weight loss regimes that center only around bland and unpalatable foods are always doomed to eventual failure as we are by nature designed to enjoy the foods we eat. Far too often we focus on the numbers- how many calories need to be consumed and what foods are best to reach that quota efficiently. In so doing many experts in the field forget that long term compliance to an uneventful but calorically correct diet is unlikely for the overwhelming majority of the population. Studies have shown, however that including nuts as a staple in weight loss diets increases long term adherence and augments overall weight loss.[25,26] It makes perfect sense since having nuts in your diet allows for a tasty and calorie rich food while watching your calories otherwise. A much needed break that serves not only to reduce the cravings for unhealthy high calorie snacks, but also increases the likelihood that you will stay on your diet.
Additional Nuts Health Benefits
Add to these five important weight loss factors, the bad cholesterol (LDL) lowering effects of nuts and it is clear that nuts should indeed be an integral part of any diet designed for optimal health and weight management. So much so that the US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Nutrition stated that: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Also of note is the fact that most of the U.S. population falls short of the recommended intakes for magnesium, a mineral that is often lost in processed foods and one where chronically low intakes appear to be linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis.[30,31] All nuts and seeds contain magnesium and inclusion of more nuts and seeds in could make a significant contribution towards protection against chronic insufficiency of magnesium. that being said, replacing refined high carbohydrate snacks with nuts could have a significant positive impact on dietary nutrient density and risk of developing chronic disease. Nuts are useful not only as snacks, but stand on their own almost as a specific food group, providing a viable protein substitute for vegetarians who do not consume meat or animal products, as 1/2 ounce of nuts or one tablespoon of peanut butter is considered to be nutritionally equivalent to 1 ounce of lean meat, poultry or fish. In terms of weight loss, not only is the consumption of nuts not associated with weight gain, but the evidence highlights the tried and true pattern of healthy weight management by eating natural foods. Foods that have been part of our diet as human beings for millennia- and in a form that is as raw an unprocessed as possible.
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