When trying to lose weight or stay lean, snacking is generally met with a bad reputation. This is due to all of the popular high-sodium, high-fat, processed foods available in convenience stores, drug stores, fast food restaurants and several other convenient grab-and-go places. Having unhealthy food constantly at your fingertips can make dieting hard, but if you replace those cravings with a healthy alternative, you can still have your between-meal snack without taking it out on the physique you’ve worked so hard for.
There are several foods that you can snack on without busting up your nutritional intake and overloading your body with calories. In moderation, nuts are one of the best snacks out there. Most nuts contain a high amount of healthy fat, a high amount of protein and not too many calories. There are several varieties of nuts you can snack on, but the most popular nuts are cashews, peanuts, almonds and walnuts.
All of these nuts are available in any grocery store in a variety of preparations. Salted, unsalted, barbecue, honey roasted, spicy – you name it. Nuts are used widely not only as snacks, but as main ingredients in other products and food. Several nuts, including peanuts, are used to extract cooking oil from. Peanut oil is very popular in Asian cooking. Almonds are also a very versatile nut, and a favorite of ketogenic dieters and sufferers of celiac disease for its flour. If you’ve never used almond flour, it is a very popular low-carb alternative to traditional wheat flour.
All of these nuts are healthy options and great for snacking, but which nut comes out on top? These nuts are all different in terms of nutritional value. Let’s break these nuts down by category and find out which is the best nut for you depending on your goals. The nutrition we’ll be looking at is for raw, unsalted varieties of these nuts – the healthiest variety. In terms of quantity, these nutritional facts are per one cup.
The first category we’re going to be looking at is overall calories. This is one of the major aspects of nutrition you should be paying attention to, as calorie intake is going to be a huge factor that will determine whether you lose or gain weight.
“But calorie counting was just a fad, right?” No. No. No. In fact, there have been multiple studies where people ate nothing but junk food, but dropped their calorie intake from their normal intake and still lost weight. This is awful for you, but it does prove a valuable point. If you want to gain weight, consume more calories than you burn. If you want to gain weight, consume less calories than you burn. Of course, there are some intricacies to these, but that’s the general concept.
Walnuts have the highest amount of calories, followed by peanuts, almonds, with cashews bringing up the rear. Depending on your goals, either walnuts or cashews win this round. For mass gain: walnuts; for weight loss: cashews. If taste plays a big factor in your decision, go with what you feel, as the spread is less than 100 across the board. Just remember to snack in moderation if you pick a higher calorie nut, as 2 cups of walnuts adds up to significantly more calories than two cups of cashews – over 100 more, in fact.
Counting calories can be a hassle at first, but as you go along you’ll notice yourself memorizing nutritional facts – maybe not the exact amount, but you’ll be able to ballpark it pretty well. As you get in the habit of looking at labels, you’ll start making automatic little food encyclopedia entries in your head. After you get some of your go-to items’ nutritional information pegged, counting calories becomes much less of a burden.
When the topic of snacking on nuts comes up, carbohydrates are largely left by the wayside of the discussion. In regards to nuts, most are concerned with fat content vs. protein, but carbohydrates are an extremely important macronutrient, as they are the body’s primary energy source. If your body has no energy, your workouts will suck and you won’t burn very many calories.
Carbohydrates also include dietary fiber, which helps maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract and provide digestive aid. However, too many carbs can cause a surplus in calorie intake and cause you to retain water weight. Due to this fact, there is a popular diet called the “ketogenic” diet.
The ketogenic diet basically works by keeping carbohydrate intake extremely low so that the body transitions to using the body’s natural secondary energy source – fat. Although this diet is pretty efficient at burning fat, this diet tends to exclude any food containing over 10g of carbohydrates. So, unfortunately, all of these nuts would be off of the ketogenic menu, along with most breads, pastries, noodles and several other staple foods.
Walnuts have by far the least amount of carbs of the bunch, with the next least being exactly double the amount. Peanuts, though, are also a good middle of the road choice because they contain a healthy dose of dietary fiber and they aren’t the highest in carbs, but still contain a healthy amount.
Ding, ding, ding! Clear winner in this category. Protein is what is going to help to rebuild your muscles after a hard workout of muscle-fiber-tearing intensity. Protein is made up of several amino acids that act as a construction crew on your muscles.
When you exercise, you’re creating several small microtears in your muscle that must be repaired before your muscle can get any bigger or stronger. Think of how callouses build on your hands when you’re lifting. The bar damages the skin – the stimulus, and the skin thickens and hardens to prevent future injury – the reaction. Bones and other tissues also work this way, but muscle is the tissue at hand.
Muscle recovery is extremely important when you’re trying to gain or lose weight. If your muscles are constantly sore and weak due to not being able to recover, your workouts won’t be nearly as effective, and your body will fatigue extremely quickly once you do exercise.
Protein can also help to curb cravings and help fight the urge to snack, which helps with weight loss. Unlike carbohydrates, we want as much protein as we can get. In a normal diet without supplementation, it’s VERY difficult to get too much protein. Snacking on nuts in moderation can give you a boost of protein, and why not choose the nut with the greatest amount? Peanuts have the most protein by 7g, just ahead of almonds.
A pretty large spread on this set as well. Before you go on an anti-fat rant, hear me out. A little bit of fat is integral to your diet. Fat is your body’s secondary source of energy after carbohydrates. Getting enough healthy fat in your diet also contributes to healthy cell membranes and helps you regulate cholesterol.
By “healthy fat” I mean unsaturated fat. Saturated fat often comes from meat and dairy products and doesn’t do much of anything for your body except jacking up your calorie intake. However, unsaturated fats do your body a lot of good, including helping to regulate blood pressure, and thus reducing risk of heart disease.
However, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient. Every gram of fat is equal to 9 calories, as opposed to the 4 calories equal to 1 gram of fat or 1 gram of protein. Taking in too much fat can cause your calorie count to skyrocket. There is generally a high amount of fat in fast food, heavily processed foods, meats and dairy. It can be difficult to maintain a diet when there are so many processed, high-fat “grab and go” snacks available at convenience stores and food court kiosks; but, being aware of how fat acts on your body and which unhealthy fats to look out for can help you get a foot in the right direction.
If you’re trying to gain weight, it’s still a good idea not to take in too much fat – saturated or unsaturated. You’ll want to keep your calorie count high, but if you’re taking in a lot of fat it can be easy to reach too much of a caloric excess. Remember, not every calorie goes towards muscle – if you start taking in 5000 calories a day, you’ll still build muscle, but you’ll be building a sizeable belly on top of that muscle.
The nut that’s lowest in fat is the cashew by 4g, which is a whopping 24g less than walnuts, with the most fat. If you’re going to choose one of the nuts that’s higher in fat, remember to exercise moderation. Getting carried away binging on a high-fat snack can lead to a spare tire pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
Which Nut Is Right For You?
The differences in nutritional value for these nuts are significant, but not monumental. Picking whichever tastes the best and remembering to snack in moderation will be just fine for whatever your fitness goal may be. However, for dietary efficiency’s and competition’s sake, we must choose a winner. This is a matter not done easily, and dependent on a few key circumstances. Take a look at the different scenarios below and see which most closely applies to you:
As we discussed earlier, maintaining a caloric deficit is paramount to losing weight. This, combined with high protein, low fat and moderate carbohydrates will all play into our decision here. The winner for weight loss is almonds.
“But almonds aren’t the lowest calorie nut in the bunch.” I know, I know; however, there are more calories proportionally coming from protein and carbohydrates than the other nuts, except cashews. Almonds win out over cashews because almonds have a whopping 10g more protein in them than cashews, with less than a 40 calorie-per-cup difference. This increased amount of protein can curb cravings better and keep off the urge to snack, which results less food (and thus, less calories) consumed. If you’re trying to lose weight and looking for a healthy snack, reach for some raw, unsalted almonds.
When trying to gain muscle, you want to maintain at a caloric excess. This is the opposite of the caloric deficit we talked about with weight loss; a caloric excess means you’re consuming more calories than you burn. This excess will help you put on size and gain muscle. The nut that can help you put on muscle the best out of these four choices is the peanut.
Peanuts are high in calories, high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates and high in fat (which is mainly responsible for boosting the nut’s calorie content). If you’re looking to put on some muscle mass, a few handfuls of raw, unsalted peanuts a day will help you get where you’re going.
If neither of these circumstances describe your fitness goals, identify which side of the spectrum you’re on between fat loss and muscle gain, and prescribe your diet accordingly. All of these choices really are healthy snacks in moderation, so there is no wrong choice. As long as they’re unsalted, choose whichever nut tastes the best to you.
Out of all of the snack foods available out there, nuts are one of the healthiest options out there. The different nutritional information makes some nuts better suited for some goals than other nuts. Almonds are the best for losing weight due to their low-calorie/moderate carb/high protein makeup and peanuts are the best for packing on mass due to their caloric density and high protein level, but as long as you’re eating them in moderation, counting your calories and getting in plenty of exercise, feel free to choose your favorite.