Nutrition experts agree that the more plant-based foods you can get into your diet, the better-including healthy fats through nuts and seeds. But what are the healthiest nuts and seeds anyway?
Good news: You can't really go wrong. However, some nuts and seeds have more nutrient bang-for-their-buck than others.
Most people are pretty good at incorporating nuts into their diet already. For the best nut options, you'll want to choose unsalted raw or roasted varieties. For nut butter, look for versions without added oil or sugar. (Here's a complete guide to nut butter.)
On the other hand, seeds don't often get the love they deserve. "For those who are looking to shift to a more plant-based diet, seeds are a great option," notes registered dietitian Kristin Koskinen, R.D.N., L.D., C.D. Seeds contain the embryo of future plants, which means they're stocked with energy and nutrients. "This efficient packaging means they offer a concentrated amount of calories. It's easy to overdo it when choosing seeds for a snack or as an addition to a smoothie, so be mindful about measuring your serving sizes."
The Healthiest Nuts
They might not seem like the most exciting nut, but they're a great source of antioxidants (which can help fight free-radical damage), according to Alix Turoff, R.D., C.D.N., C.P.T., a registered dietitian and personal trainer. "Walnuts are also significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any other nut," she says. The Institute of Medicine has set the adequate intake of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) at 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day (for women and men respectively), which can be met with a single serving of walnuts, she says.
Her favorite way to eat them? "As a topping for Greek yogurt!"
"Pistachios are rich in arginine, an amino acid that has been shown to improve blood flow," says Koskinen. "Not only is this good for your heart, but it may also help with conditions such as hypertension and leg cramps."
Red-dyed pistachios are mostly not a "thing" anymore, but if you need to choose, go for the ones in a natural-colored shell. Shelled nuts are also an option, but Koskinen recommends the in-shell version as a mindful eating tool. "The process of shelling your own is a built-in tool for portion control, as it slows down the eating process. Pistachios are a great snack, salad topping, or used as a crust for salmon."
"Peanuts are one of the most popular nuts today for good reason," says Zigler. (Though technically, yes, they're legumes.) "They're an excellent source of niacin and manganese, and a good source of vitamin E, fiber, phosphorus, copper, folate, and magnesium," she says.
Zigler personally opts for peanut butter in a powdered form because it's lower in calories and fat. "I enjoy mixing it into my smoothies for a great peanut butter taste!"
"One serving of 23 almonds has about 160 calories with 6g protein and over 3g fiber," says registered dietitian Stacey Mattinson, R.D.N.
They're a great alternative to peanuts for those who are allergic, and they pack 12 vitamins and minerals. "Among those are phosphorous, copper, riboflavin, vitamin E, magnesium, and manganese," Mattinson says. "I like to eat roasted, unsalted almonds (I grab them from the bulk section!) by themselves if I'm on the go, or paired with fruit if I'm at home."
5. Brazil Nuts
Brazil nuts are the most concentrated source of selenium, an essential mineral, Koskinen points out. "Selenium is necessary for thyroid function, the immune system, and reproductive health. Eating just one or two a day can bolster selenium levels."
But it's a good idea to eat them in moderation only: "They are such rich sources of selenium that it's possible to overdo things and end up with symptoms of an overdose, such as diarrhea, brittle nails, or hair loss," she adds.
The Healthiest Seeds
1. Sesame Seeds
"Sesame seeds are an excellent source of calcium and magnesium, and are also a good source of iron, zinc, and omega-6 fatty acids," says registered dietitian Brooke Zigler, R.D.N., L.D. If you want to eat them whole, she recommends sprinkling them on baked goods, vegetables, and salads.
"Sesame can also be consumed in oil form, and is a great addition to many recipes, including a base for salad dressings and drizzled on vegetables in a stir-fry. Additionally, it can be turned into tahini, which is a form of a seed butter." (BTW, check out these brilliant tahini tricks you've never heard of.)
Yep, quinoa is a seed-mind blown. "Quinoa can boast that it's one of the few plant foods that is a complete protein, offering all the essential amino acids. The high ratio of protein to carbohydrate found in quinoa translates to feeling full longer," says Koskinen. Plus, quinoa has a glycemic index of around 53, which means it doesn't tend to cause dramatic spikes in blood glucose levels.
"Quinoa is easy to prepare and quite versatile. It can be served cooked or sprouted. Cooking in stock or broth adds extra flavor and nutrition to your quinoa, but it can also be prepared using water. Serve as a side dish, mixed with greens for a hearty salad, or with your favorite milk and spices like cinnamon or nutmeg for an easy breakfast."
Whether you're using them as an egg substitute in baked goods or sprinkled over your oatmeal, flaxseed is a great way to add more fiber and ALA omega-3's into your diet, says Zigler. "Fiber helps to slow digestion, which provides for a steady blood glucose level and sustained energy for hours. Flaxseed may also help to lower LDL cholesterol, which may help to reduce the risk of heart disease."
However, it's important to note that in order to get all the benefits of flaxseed, it should be milled (ground) before consumption, she explains. Whole flaxseed may pass through your body undigested, which means you could miss out on the nutritional benefits." (Need more ideas? Here are 10 tasty ways to eat flaxseed.)
4. Chia Seeds
"Chia seeds are high in both protein and fiber, and contain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants," says Turoff. "Because they're so high in soluble fiber, they can absorb 10 to 12 times their weight in water, which allows them to form a gel-like texture and expand in your stomach. This can slow the absorption of food and lead to a feeling of fullness." (No wonder you feel so full after that chia seed pudding.)
5. Cucumber Seeds
When you think of the healthiest nuts and seeds, you're probably not thinking about...cucumbers. Turns out, those little seeds inside a cucumber have tons of health benefits.
"Cucumber seeds contain a host of health-supporting nutrients including carotenoids and flavonoids," says Koskinen. "You don't have to head to a specialty market looking for cucumber seeds-just eat the ones that come conveniently packed within this cool fruit. Cucumbers are great served sliced, as part of a Greek salad, or fermented into pickles."