It’s a new year, which means two things. One, we’ve all indulged over the holiday season. And two, we’re looking for ways to get back to our healthiest selves. So, as we now wrangle with our January goals – and grocery shopping lists – many of us will find that, well, there doesn’t seem to be a substitute for satisfying snacks. Could nuts and seeds fill that gap – and do good for the body, too?
If you’re looking for a fresh take on your favorite savory snacks, you’re probably not alone. As it turns out, unsweetened bites are a huge industry in the U.S., and one that’s set to reach staggering heights in 2022. Some projections value the savory snack industry at more than $55.3 billion in a couple of years’ time.
By now, you’ve possibly got a few favorite savory snacks on your own shelves. But not all of these treats are necessarily good for you. Expert Vilma Andari told the American Heart Association that highly processed snack foods – along with fast food meals – are often the least healthy options for diners across the country.
Almari said, “Highly processed foods tend to be low in nutrients – vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – and high on empty calories due to the content of refined flours, sodium and sugar.” None of these qualities will help you in your quest for a healthier new year – so you may need to start searching for a different type of snack.
Like we said, you’re not the only person out there in search of snacks – even when it comes to healthy ones. Millennials, in particular, have made healthy treats a big part of their daily diet. Some rely on small, hearty bites as supplements to their larger meals, while others simply snack as a replacement for a full, sit-down serving.
There are so many lists out there that provide us with ideas for healthy eats, too. And the good news is that you can snack while you’re trying to get fitter or shed pounds. In fact, it often proves to be key to success as people embark on healthy lifestyles. Having a small portion of a nourishing food can keep you fuller and ward off cravings for unhealthy, processed snacks.
As you peruse these lists, you’ve probably seen nuts and seeds listed as a healthy option over and over again. And stocking your shelves with these crunchy bites means you’re taking part in a national trend that’s made healthy snacks into a more-than-$20-billion business as of 2016. And at that time, experts forecasted a 5.1 percent increase in that number by 2025.
According to research into snack habits, nuts have gotten so popular recently because they’ve been deemed healthy, meaning they fit the bill for those in search of body-bettering bites. Even with all of the hype surrounding them, though, you still might not be sure what these snacks can do for your body.
As it turns out, nuts and seeds offer a plethora of benefits that can bolster your health. But not all snacks in this category are created equal, so you have to be careful about which ones you select. But with the right selection of crunchy bites in your pantry, you’ll have a healthy, satisfying and tasty resource on hand for whenever you start feeling peckish mid-meal.
In general, experts have found that the majority of nuts and seeds share a very similar macronutrient breakdown, meaning they all have about the same amount of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Where they vary more is in their micronutrient profile, which is the vitamin and mineral content within each type of nut or seed.
Many varieties of nuts and seeds both contain healthy fats, for starters. Monounsaturated fats are the most common and appear in the majority of nuts and some seeds. And once in the body, they can actually help lower cholesterol levels. They also nourish and maintain the cells in your body – an important job, considering experts have estimated that each person has 30 trillion of them.
On the other hand, nuts and seeds carry very little saturated fat – also known as the bad kind of fat. This one works in the exact opposite way as its healthy counterpart. See, saturated fat boosts cholesterol levels in the blood, which can contribute to heart disease and strokes. But, of course, most of the snack-ready treats in question do not carry enough saturated fats to do damage.
On top of that, both seeds and nuts provide a natural, plant-based source of protein – a great stand-in for meats and fish for those who don’t eat them. Protein’s vital to the body in a myriad of ways, but perhaps most famously for the part it plays in building muscle.
If that’s not enough good news, let’s look at the fiber content of nuts and seeds next. Both varieties of crunchy snack contain a wealth of this digestive must-have. Fiber helps keep you regular, but it also keeps you feeling fuller for longer. That’s why it’s an integral part of any attempt to lose weight.
And then, there are all of the vitamins and minerals contained within nuts and seeds. Check the nutrition label to see exactly which ones your selected variety has to offer. You are likely to find anything from magnesium, zinc, copper, calcium and selenium to vitamins E and B, among others.
Before you run out and buy every kind of nut and seed you can find, though, it’s important to realize that not all of your options come with the same health benefits across the board. Yes, most make healthy snack options, but there are a few varieties that can actually be a detriment to your well-being. It ultimately comes down to knowing the kind you’re buying – and what they contain within them.
For example, if you want to lose weight by following a healthy meal plan, then it’s best that you avoid macadamia nuts and pecans during your slim-down process. An ounce of either of these comes with about 200 calories, the most of any variety of nut. And with that, you get the lowest amount of healthy fat and protein – so, not very much bang for your buck.
But if weight loss isn’t your goal, then macadamia nuts or pecans might fit the bill. In the case of macadamias, you can happily snack on them if your goal is to improve your heart health. That’s because they contain a wealth of monounsaturated fats. They’re the ones that can lower your cholesterol levels, thus reducing the strain on your cardiovascular system.
The same goes for pecans – they may be high in calories and low in fat, but they can help lower cholesterol levels. These popular dessert toppers provide you with a hearty helping of polyphenols, which enter the bloodstream and act just like an antioxidant would. That is, they ward off free radicals that can cause diseases including cancer.
Really, you can find benefits of eating all different types of nuts and seeds so that they match your needs – beyond nourishment and satiation, anyway. Take peanuts as another example. They’re actually classified as legumes, but most people snack on peanuts as they do with other varieties of nuts. So, it’s worth examining their benefits.
As it turns out, peanuts have the power to protect your brain from cognitive deterioration, thanks to their significant folate content. Folate also boosts the brain’s development – and that’s why it’s a must-have for pregnant women, too. Vegetarians can benefit from snacking on peanuts because their diets often lack the mineral, as well.
Next, we have Brazil nuts, which may have the power to ward off prostate cancer. That’s because these extra-large bites happen to contain selenium, a mineral that has its links to disease prevention. But snacking on Brazil nuts should be done in moderation, as some research has determined that excessive selenium intake can contribute to type 2 diabetes.
Almonds have a similar effect, thanks to the fact that they include vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that limits free radicals. This one works specifically to quell harmful inflammation all throughout the body. Plus, vitamin E has a hand in warding off lung cancer and cognitive decline, according to some research.
Of course, it’s not just nuts we’re talking about here. Seeds, too, have a wealth of specific health benefits that might be important to you and your particular situation. flax seeds, also known as linseeds, have a laundry list of positive contents, including omega-3 fats. These reside in the shell of the seed, though, so to get them you have to eat ground-up flax seeds.
Flax seeds also contain lignans, which are a kind of polyphenol. These function as antioxidants, and they also mimic the female sex hormone known as estrogen. Experts believe this fact is a particularly important one, because flaxseed consumption is thought to reduce cancer risk and stall tumor growth in breast cancer patients.
Chia seeds are another popular selection. These tiny black flecks do more than add crunch to a smoothie or yogurt bowl, though. If you incorporate them into a meal, they’ll work to lower your blood sugar levels right after eating. At the same time, they can reduce a person’s appetite later, too.
Another good seed to work into your diet is hemp. Turns out, hemp seeds make an excellent replacement for animal proteins. They’re actually one of a very limited number of plant-based sources of complete proteins, which means they encompass every amino acid that the body is unable to produce on its own. So, if your vegetarian friends have extolled the benefits of hemp, now you know why.
Hemp seeds have more to offer than a complete source of protein, though. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, and one that can soothe skin affected by eczema. Yes, research has found that hemp seed oil helped those with the condition. In one study, sufferers who used the oil found that their skin became less dry and itchy after 20 weeks of incorporating it into their daily routines.
Sesame seeds also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. This can be especially useful in dealing with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or similar afflictions. In one study, for example, those with knee-based osteoarthritis had markedly less inflammatory chemicals floating around in their bodies after taking sesame seed powder for around eight weeks.
And then, there are pumpkin seeds. Before you toss them after your next jack-o’-lantern carving session, know this: they can improve your bladder health. For starters, research has shown that kids who eat these seeds reduce their risk of developing bladder stones, which form when minerals crystallize in the organ. They can cause abdominal pain, too.
On top of that, people with urinary disorders or prostate problems benefit from pumpkin seeds and the oil, in particular. If you have an overactive bladder, then they might help calm down your urge to go. And men with enlarged prostates feel less pressure when they eat pumpkin seeds, too.
Clearly, nuts and seeds have so much to offer you. But before you go buying any old container off of the store shelves, make sure you choose the healthiest recipe when eating your daily helping. In other words, plucking a chocolate bar with some peanuts or almonds inside doesn’t count – the sugar and calorie content can negate all the goodness you get from the other stuff inside.
Even non-candied nuts and seeds can raise eyebrows, though. Sweetened varieties, for example, can come with loads of sugar or other heavy ingredients, including butter or oil. Salt might also be a consideration if you have high blood pressure. In that case, look for lightly dusted recipes or go for completely unsalted snack packs.
A plain, old nut or seed doesn’t have to be boring, though. Many roasted varieties come with rich flavor, while raw options have plenty of crunch to offer. Steer clear of blanched varieties – you’ll often find peanuts or almonds prepared this way. Without their skins, they lose many of the antioxidants you want to get from eating them.
You can come up with clever ways to work all of these crunchy snacks into your daily menu – you don’t just have to grab a handful of them and munch. For one thing, you can reach for your favorite nut butter and slather it onto whole-grain bread, fruit or celery sticks. Peanut or almond butter – without lots of sugar or salt added in – can be perfectly nutritious.
If you have raw nuts or seeds in your pantry but want a little more flavor, fire up the oven and roast them yourself. Just sprinkle on a bit of spice to make them more satisfying and robust. A bit of cocoa powder, turmeric or cinnamon can go a long way – no salt, sugar or oil required.
Nuts make a great crunchy topping, too. Try sprinkling them over your salad in place of, say, a handful of croutons. Or you might pour some onto cereal or into a smoothie bowl to create a more filling meal. The same goes for yogurt – make your dairy-based treat even more satisfying with some hazelnuts, almonds, chia or flax seeds on top.
Of course, you can get even more creative than that. Head online and search for recipes in which you substitute meat for chopped up nuts and seeds – remember how we said they have enough protein to fill in for animal products? Well, plenty of vegetarian and vegan meals take this into consideration. If you’re feeling inspired, try a nut-based casserole or burger recipe to mix things up.
No matter how you choose to eat your seeds and nuts, though, there’s one last thing to keep in mind. Although they do provide you with so many benefits, there is a possibility of having too much of a good thing. Most nuts and seeds have quite a few calories, so portioning is key.
So, you should eat plenty of nuts and seeds each day – but without overdoing it. Whether you choose almonds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, chia seeds or any other variety, know that a small amount packs a big punch. You will be healthier and satiated – and all you have to do is have a tasty snack.