The federal government’s new MyPlate guide to healthful eating suggests filling one-quarter of your plate with protein. That can include meat, poultry, fish and seafood. But vegetarians, vegans and those who value a varied diet might want to toss some nuts and seeds into that quadrant.
MyPlate, whose round dinner plate replaces the food pyramid, helps consumers interpret the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which suggest we choose from a variety of foods, including nuts and seeds, to meet our protein needs. That ensures that we get the optimal mix of nutrients in our diets, as different protein sources bring different combinations of vitamins, minerals, fats and fiber to the table.
Here’s where nuts and seeds fit in.
What counts as a nut?
— Tree nuts, including almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.
— Peanuts and peanut butter (though purists would say peanuts are actually legumes, the guidelines count them as nuts).
— Seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds). Because their nutrient profiles are so similar, they’re considered interchangeable with nuts.
Did you know?
Despite its name, the coconut isn’t considered a true nut, and its meat has only about a gram of protein per ounce.
Why eat them?
Cardiovascular health: The unsaturated fats that nuts contain in abundance are good for your cardiovascular system. The Food and Drug Administration in 2003 ruled that nuts could bear a qualified health claim that eating 1.5 ounces a day may reduce risk of heart disease. And the report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which provides the scientific basis for the 2010 guidelines, notes that unsaturated fatty acids such as those in nuts can lower total cholesterol and LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol.
That full feeling: Nuts’ combination of protein, fiber and fat “keeps you full longer” than many other snack foods, says Maureen Ternus, executive director of the International Tree Nut Council.
Vitamins and minerals: Although most nuts have similar packages of nutrients, Ternus says, “each has its own attributes.” For instance, walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids, the cardio-friendly fats that are also found in cold-water fish such as salmon, Ternus says, while almonds and hazelnuts are rich in Vitamin E (an antioxidant that may help protect against cell damage and boost immune function). Macadamia nuts have the highest monounsaturated fat content of all nuts, Ternus says, while pistachios and cashews have the lowest overall fat contents. “Choose your favorites and eat a mixture of them,” Ternus advises.
According to the guidelines, a person following a 2,000-calorie diet should aim for about 51 / 2 ounces of protein foods per day. But nuts, because they’re so high in calories, are counted differently from other protein sources: Colette Rihane, a nutritionist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explains that a half-ounce of nuts is an “ounce-equivalent” of protein foods. So if you eat a full ounce, that’s two ounce-equivalents, or about a third of the protein you need that day. The guidelines point out that the usual U.S. intake of nuts, seeds and processed soy products is about half an ounce a day.
The guidelines call for a person on that 2,000-calorie diet to eat about four ounce-equivalents of nuts, seeds and soy products (another protein source that the guidelines sometimes lump in with nuts and seeds) a week, while a 2,000-calorie vegan diet should shoot for about 15 ounce-equivalents of nuts and seeds per week.
Go to ChooseMyPlate.gov to learn how many almonds (12-13), cashews (5-6), walnuts (4-5 whole nuts) or other nuts count as an ounce-equivalent serving.
Calories: The downside of nuts (and seeds) is that, ounce for ounce, they’re more caloric than meat, chicken or fish. An ounce of walnuts (that’s 14 halves) has 190 calories; an ounce of roasted chicken breast has 46 calories. So even that ounce-equivalent ½-ounce of walnuts has 95 calories, twice as many as the chicken. To fit nuts in your diet, you need to exercise portion control, keep track of calories and use them as a replacement for other protein sources, not an addition. Looking for the biggest protein punch for your calories? Try pistachios: At 160 calories per ounce (about 49 kernels), they deliver six grams of protein, according to the International Tree Nut Council. An ounce of almonds has the same calorie and protein count, but you get to eat only 23 whole nuts.
Sodium: By “nuts and seeds,” the guidelines do not mean those salty treats you snack on at bars. Stick to unsalted nuts or, for an occasional treat, those labeled “lightly salted.”
Allergies: According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, about 1.2 percent of the U.S. population has a tree nut allergy, and about the same percentage of U.S. children has peanut allergies. Many people with peanut allergies are also allergic to one or more kind of tree nut. But many people outgrow these early in life, often by age 6, according to that organization. Because nut allergies can be life-threatening, people who have them should steer far clear of nuts and find alternate protein sources. Those who don’t eat animal-based foods might be able to rely on soy products and beans, though many people are allergic to those, too.
— One tablespoon of peanut butter counts as an ounce equivalent of protein and has about 95 calories. Be sure to measure; it’s easy to go overboard on p.b.! For a change of pace, try almond butter.
— Look in the grocery store for prepackaged 100-calorie packs of almonds. One package is just over half (.63) an ounce. Or buy nuts in bulk and count out your portion into a snack-size plastic bag.
— Ternus suggests you store nuts in a “cool, dry place. I keep all mine in the freezer,” she says, where they will keep for up to a year. If you store them in the pantry, they may go rancid because of their fat content, she says. “They’ll stay fresh for up to a year in your freezer,” Ternus notes. Exception: shell-on pistachios. If you keep them in the freezer, the moisture trapped by the shells will cause them to go bad.
— Toast them. “Toasting brings out more flavor,” without damaging the nutrients, Ternus says.
— Rihane suggests adding nuts to oatmeal, yogurt and dishes made with brown rice or quinoa. “Add them to salad to make it a meal,” she suggests. Or “mix some unsalted nuts or seeds with dried fruit in a baggie to take on a trip” for a snack. However you use them, though, be sure to account for their calories in your daily total, she says.
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