Putting nuts in your mouth — okay, settle down — is easily one of the simplest ways to become healthier. In fact, I wrote about the many benefits of swallowing all sorts of nut (sorry) once before:
“A 2018 study of more than 81,000 people found that those who consumed large amounts of meat protein experienced a 60 percent increase in cardiovascular disease, whereas those who stuck to the squirrel diet — consuming more nuts and seeds (approximately a handful of mixed nuts and/or seeds per day) — decreased their risk of developing the same deadly heart problems by 40 percent. A 2017 study also found that plant and animal protein are equally capable of building muscle, meaning lentils are just as good a post-gym protein as chicken.”
But that doesn’t mean you should go round sucking every random nut you find resting on your buddy’s couch, because some nuts are healthier than others. To figure out which nuts are the best nuts, I asked Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank popular nuts by how healthy they are — from pretty healthy to X-tremely healthy.
1. Walnuts: “Walnuts are my top pick for healthiest nut,” says Friedman. “They contain the most antioxidants compared to any other nut and also offer the most healthy kind of fat, omega-3 fatty acids [which prevent heart disease]. Walnuts also contain iron [which supports oxygen-carrying red blood cells], selenium [which research shows may help prevent cancer], calcium, zinc [which supports the immune system], vitamin E [which acts as an antioxidant] and some B-vitamins.”
“Walnuts can help lower triglycerides [fat in the blood that can increase your risk of heart disease] and protect your heart,” Friedman continues. “They’re also extremely healthy for the brain — in fact, walnuts even look like a brain! Walnuts have even been shown to play a role in reducing colorectal cancer. According to a study published in May, walnuts also improve the gut microbiome, the collection of trillions of microbes or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which may be behind some of their health benefits.”
2. Chestnuts: “These have the least calories at only 55 per ounce,” says Hunnes. “But they also have the least protein and most carbohydrates. That said, if you’re watching your weight or calorie intake, these might be the best choice.” Chestnuts also provide a decent portion of manganese, which helps the body metabolize proteins and carbs.
3. Peanuts: While most of the nuts on this list are tree nuts, Hunnes explains that peanuts are actually legumes, since they grow underground, like beans. “These contain 160 calories per ounce,” Hunnes says. “These also have the most protein and high amounts of healthy monounsaturated fats.” These fats are, in fact, considered to be one of the healthiest fats, since they lower cholesterol, and therefore, reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Friedman, however, has a few warnings regarding peanuts. “Peanuts grow underground, which leaves them more susceptible to the growth of mold,” he says. “Since mold is an issue with peanuts, non-organic farmers often use pesticides and fungicides on peanut crops, which is why peanuts and products derived from them may contain high levels of pesticide residues.”
4. Pistachios: “These nuts aren’t only fun to eat, they’re also great if you’re a stressful eater or like to nosh while watching TV, since they give your hands something to do,” says Friedman. “Pistachios are a great source of protein, fiber, antioxidants and heart-healthy fats. They contain more vitamin B6 than any other nut, which is important for blood sugar regulation and the formation of hemoglobin, a molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Pistachios are also rich in potassium [which supports our muscles], with one ounce containing more potassium than half of a large banana.”
5. Almonds: “Almonds contain more fiber than any other nut (about three grams per ounce) and are also the highest in Vitamin E,” says Friedman. “Almonds also contain lots of healthy fats, protein and magnesium [which can fight depression]. They may help lower blood sugar levels, reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels, and they’re great if you’re trying to lose weight, since almonds can help to reduce hunger.”
6. Pecans: “Pecans have many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants,” Friedman explains. “They also contain monounsaturated fats, which may help improve cholesterol levels, and they provide more flavonoids than any of the nuts — flavonoids are among the most anti-inflammatory of all antioxidants, helping to combat cardiovascular disease and the negative effects of aging.” Hunnes mentions, however, that pecans are pretty high in calories at 200 per ounce, and contain less protein than many of the other nuts on this list.
7. Brazil Nuts: “Brazil nuts are one of the richest sources of selenium, a mineral that’s been shown to boost our immune system, improve our thyroid function and maybe even prevent cancer,” says Friedman. “Brazil nuts are also high in monounsaturated fat. They’re a great source of important nutrients, including magnesium, zinc, calcium, vitamin E and some B vitamins. On top of that, Brazil nuts are known for their cancer-fighting properties due to their high amounts of ellagic acid, which is a compound that has the ability to inhibit blood flow and reduce the growth of cancer cells.”
8. Cashews: “Cashews have a lower fat content than most other nuts — approximately 82 percent of their fat is unsaturated fat, the majority being heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, similar to those found in olive oil,” Friedman explains. “A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Nutrition shows cashews may help to reduce blood pressure and raise ‘good’ cholesterol levels.” Hunnes adds that cashews contains 160 calories per ounce and are slightly lower in protein than peanuts. “These are more buttery than peanuts, so if you like the flavor, they’re a great substitute,” she says.
9. Hazelnuts: “Hazelnuts contain a high amount of phenolic compounds, which are antioxidants that have been shown to help decrease blood cholesterol and inflammation,” says Friedman. “They’re also heart-healthy and have cancer-protecting properties.” Friedman also explains that hazelnuts are good for muscles, joints and digestion.
Hunnes adds that hazelnuts contains 180 calories per ounce and are high in monounsaturated fats, which again, reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke. She also says that hazelnuts are fairly high in fiber.
10. Macadamia Nuts: “Macadamia nuts used to have a bad reputation, because they’re considered to be high in fat,” says Friedman. “However, 80 percent of this fat is monounsaturated fat. Macadamia nuts actually contain more monounsaturated fat per serving than any other nut, and they’re a good source of calcium, magnesium and potassium — the three minerals that help prevent bone loss.”
11. Cow Nuts (aka Rocky Mountain Oysters): “One word for that: DISGUSTING,” says Hunnes.
So there you have it: Walnuts are really healthy, and, well, most other nuts are, too. “All of these nuts are good for you (again, except for Rocky Mountain oysters), so you can’t really go wrong. Just be mindful of portion size, since it can add up,” says Hunnes.
Can’t wait to go stuff a whole nut sack in my mouth right now!