Nuts offer numerous health benefits, from supporting a healthy heart to potentially protecting against cancer – find out which nut is packed full of calcium, which has the lowest fat and calorie content and which makes the perfect addition to a plant-focused diet.
What are nuts?
Nuts are nutrient dense, edible seed kernels encased in a hard shell; and include almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios, as well as cashews, pine nuts, pecans, macadamias and Brazil nuts. Although chestnuts (Castanea sativa) are tree nuts, they differ from the other common varieties because they are starchier and lower in fat. Often thought of as a ‘nut,’ peanuts are technically legumes, just like peas and beans.
Top 10 healthiest nuts
A 30g serving of almonds provides:
184 kcals/760 kJ
1.3g faturated fat
11.5g mono-unsaturated fat
3.1g poly-unsaturated fat
7.19mg vitamin E
Packed with heart-friendly monounsaturated fat, fibre and vitamin E, almonds have the highest calcium content of a nut – we need this mineral for robust bones, as well as for the correct function of our nerves and muscles. The beneficial fat and high fibre content of almonds means they help to manage cholesterol levels for heart health.
Eating skin-on almonds may provide even greater benefits; supporting gut health by promoting the growth of beneficial strains of bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifido-bacteria. The skin is also full of protective compounds called flavonoids which have antioxidant benefits.
2. Brazil nuts
A 30g serving of Brazil nuts provides:
205 kcals/845 KJ
5.2g saturated fat
6.7g mono-unsaturated fat
7.6g poly-unsaturated fat
Selenium is a mineral that acts as a protective antioxidant, it supports immunity and helps wounds heal. You only need one to three Brazil nuts a day to get all the selenium you require, because we only need this mineral in very small amounts. Also containing vitamin E and the polyphenols ellagic and gallic acid, Brazil nuts enhance our defence mechanisms and help regulate blood lipids.
A 30g serving of cashew nuts provides:
2.9g saturated fat
8.3g mono-unsaturated fat
2.6g poly-unsaturated fat
Because they contribute a good level of protein and are a useful source of minerals like iron and zinc, cashews make an excellent choice if you follow a vegetarian diet. They’re also rich in the mineral magnesium, which is thought to improve recall and delay age-related memory loss. Cashews are a source of heart-friendly mono-unsaturated fats and supply plant sterols, which may help manage cholesterol levels.
A popular and versatile ingredient, chestnuts are low in fat and calories, and a good source of protective antioxidants.
A 30g serving of raw chestnuts provides:
0.1g saturated fat
0.1g mono-unsaturated fat
0.1g poly-unsaturated fat
12mg vitamin C
By far the nut with the lowest fat and calories, chestnuts are rich in starchy carbohydrates and fibre, and in their raw form are a good source of vitamin C. They’re lower in protein than other nuts, but when ground can be used as a gluten-free flour for cakes and bakes.
Hazelnuts are rich in a number of nutrients, including vitamin E.
A 30g serving of hazelnuts provides:
1.4g saturated fat
14.8g mono-unsaturated fat
2.0g poly-unsaturated fat
Hazelnuts are the second richest nut source of heart-friendly mono-unsaturated fat, they also have anti-inflammatory properties and can be helpful in managing blood lipids. Rich in vitamins and minerals, they are effective at improving vitamin E status, especially in the elderly.
6. Macadamia nuts
With one of the highest fat contents, macadamias are often used to add flavour and texture to a dish, and work well in savoury and sweet recipes.
A 30g serving of macadamia provides:
3.6g saturated fat
17.7g mono-unsaturated fat
0.5g poly-unsaturated fat
Although well known for their high fat content, macadamia nuts shouldn’t be feared. They are the richest nut source of heart-friendly mono-unsaturated fats and, as such, they help manage cholesterol and modulate the risk factors of heart disease. They’re a good source of fibre and make a useful contribution towards mineral intake, including magnesium, calcium and potassium.
Sweet and creamy, pecans are popular in desserts and sweet bakes.
A 30g serving of pecans provides:
1.7g saturated fat
12.8g mono-unsaturated fat
5.6g poly-unsaturated fat
Heart-friendly pecans are packed with plant sterols, which are effective at lowering cholesterol levels. Pecans are also antioxidant-rich, which helps prevent the plaque formation which causes hardening of the arteries. They’re also rich in oleic acid, the mono-unsaturated fat which is famed for the heart-healthy benefits of olives and avocado.
8. Pine nuts
These little nuts are a key ingredients in pesto, and make a nutritious addition to salads, pasta or dips. Botanically, pine nuts are actually a seed rather than a nut and are derived from different species of pine cone.
A 30g serving of pine nuts provides:
1.4g saturated fat
6g mono-unsaturated fat
12.3g poly-unsaturated fat
4.16mg vitamin E
1.14mg vitamin B3
Being especially rich in vitamin E means including these little nuts in the diet may help support healthy skin and protect against ageing.
Animal studies suggest that pine nuts help lower fasting blood glucose levels, and their rich polyphenol content may help prevent some of the health complications associated with diabetes. However, more clinical trials are needed to understand the effects of polyphenol-rich foods and how much we need to include in our diets to achieve these results.
A popular ingredient in desserts and puddings, pistachios add an intriguing colour to dishes, thanks to pigments which have antioxidant properties.
A 30g serving of pistachio provides:
1.7g saturated fat
7.1g mono-unsaturated fat
4.1g poly-unsaturated fat
1.37mg vitamin E
Compared to most other nuts, pistachios have a lower fat and calorie content and contain the highest amount of potassium. They’re especially rich in phytosterols, which supports cardiovascular health. They’re also the only nut to provide reasonable levels of lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants which play an important role in protecting the eyes.
Like all nuts, walnuts provide ‘good-for-you’ fats, and in this case, they are predominantly polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). In fact, walnuts have the highest content of the short chain omega-3 essential fatty acid, alpha lipoic acid (ALA), of all edible plants, making them an incredibly valuable inclusion for those following a plant-focused diet.
A 30g serving of walnuts provide:
2.2g saturated fat
3.2g mono-unsaturated fat
14.0g poly-unsaturated fat
1.16mg vitamin E
Eating walnuts appears to not only benefit us but our gut bacteria too, this was seen in an eight week study which followed 194 healthy adults who consumed 43g of walnuts each day. The findings showed an increase in the number of beneficial gut bacteria and especially in those that produce the short chain fatty acid butyrate, which among other benefits has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
This article was last updated on 5 October 2021.
Kerry Torrens is a Registered Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.