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Why Nuts Aren't Fattening by Matthew Papaconstantinou, PhD PDF Print E-mail

Why Nuts Aren’t Fattening

By Matthew Papaconstantinou, PhD

You start on a diet, count calories and lose some weight. You join a gym, develop an exercise regimen and lose some more weight -- but not enough. You fall off the diet, neglect the gym membership, gain the weight back and feel guilty. You redouble your efforts and banish all fats from your diet. Although you’re fond of tree nuts like almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts, you add them to your list of forbidden foods.

Now you can give in to temptation and still achieve your fitness goals. New research suggests that you should consider putting nuts back on the menu. Far from being part of the problem, it turns out that nuts may be your ticket to weight loss.

The Nut Paradox
It’s a common misconception that nuts are fattening and that eating them will cause you to gain weight. Although all varieties (except chestnuts) are high in fat, eating nuts can actually help you lose weight. Although this information seems counter-intuitive, it’s been proven repeatedly in scientific studies.

The Proof
Researchers led by R.D. Mattes of the Department of Foods and Nutrition at Purdue University conducted a review that was published in the 2010 Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The objective was to determine, once and for all, how nuts impact body weight and weight loss by examining the results of studies conducted worldwide on the subject. To that end, data was collected from epidemiologic, interventional, mechanistic, longitudinal and cohort studies, as well as dietary intervention nut studies, clinical trials and health surveys. In all, 43 studies, trials and surveys were referenced for the review, covering over two hundred thousand human test subjects.

The Benefits
The review found several benefits to be gained from making nuts a part of your weight loss program. First of all, people who eat nuts have a lower body mass index (BMI). This is due to several factors, one of which is greater adherence to diet. Over time, it’s easier to adhere to a diet that allows a moderate amount of fat than it is to stick to a low-fat or non-fat diet. Failure to stick with the program is the main reason behind the inability to lose weight. Nut eaters also were found to have higher levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and a more favorable lipid profile, making them less likely to develop heart disease. They also had higher intakes of vitamins A and E, minerals and dietary fiber.

Why It Works
There are several mechanisms by which nuts help reduce body mass, even without exercise or other dietary restrictions.

1. Satisfaction
Dieters often give in to cravings, but eating nuts imparts a feeling of fullness. Snacking on nuts results in eating less at mealtime. Adding nuts to the diet also reduces the feelings of deprivation that can accompany long-term dieting.

2. Inefficient energy absorption
Although nuts are energy-dense - meaning that they are high in calories - the body doesn’t absorb that energy very efficiently. This seems to be the case when eating whole nuts as compared to nut butters, implying that some of it has to do with how thoroughly the nuts are chewed. When whole nuts are consumed, much of their caloric value goes in one end and out the other.

3. Increased metabolism
The human body expends energy even while asleep in the service of basic functions like breathing, heartbeat and maintaining body temperature. It’s called the Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. The higher the BMR, the more calories you burn without having to do anything, so an increased BMR is desirable for weight loss. As you age, your BMR decreases, creating a connection between age and weight gain. BMR also decreases as you lose weight, which is why many dieters encounter a plateau after the initial pounds have been shed. Anything that increases BMR is called thermogenic. Exercise can increase BMR and so can foods. Nuts have been found to be quite thermogenic, owing at least in part to their high levels of protein and unsaturated fats. One study analyzed by Mattes and his researchers showed that daily consumption of a moderate amount of peanuts over a 19-week period increased BMR by a whopping 11%.

The implications of increasing BMR by 11% are as follows:
The average woman in the United States is 30 years old, 5’ 4” tall and weighs 160 lbs. Her basic metabolism burns calories at the rate of 1511 per day. If she were to increase her BMR by 11%, then she would burn an extra 166 calories each day without changing her lifestyle in any way. If she’s happy with her weight, then she just got a free pass to eat an additional 166 calories. If she doesn’t eat those extra calories, then she would lose weight at a rate of about 1.4 lbs per month or 17 lbs per year. And as an extra, added bonus, she simultaneously would get to enjoy eating a daily dose of nuts.

In a Nutshell
Nuts can be added to your diet without the fear of additional weight gain. A small handful eaten as a snack or sprinkled on a salad will boost your resting metabolism, lower your BMI and help you adhere to your diet. Roasted nuts are deep-fried in fattening, unhealthy oils, so instead choose raw, unsalted nuts for the healthiest option (or dry roasted nuts as the next best option otherwise). When eaten in moderation, nuts can be an important component of a successful weight loss program.

Matthew Papaconstantinou, editor of, is a biologist with a background in medical science. As an advocate of healthy eating and natural weight loss, he closely follows relevant scientific research and enjoys writing articles that provide insight on typically confusing health topics.

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