Why does adding ‘calorific’ nuts to the diet not usually cause weight gain?

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Much of our thinking about weight control has been dictated by the calorie principle – the idea that our body weight is determined by the balance of calories taken into and burned by our bodies. Within this overarching concept, calorific foods tend not to be favoured. One food that falls foul here is nuts. Just 100 g of almonds contains close to 600 calories. According to conventional wisdom, then, regular eating of nuts can easily put out calorie balance into the black, which will then be reflected as increasing body weight.

However, while this may make sense, the reality is that studies do not generally link nut-eating with weight gain. In fact, some studies suggest that nuts may actually help weight control [1].

There are several potential explanations for this, including the fact that nuts will not tend to cause much upsurge in blood levels of sugar and subsequently insulin – a key fat storage hormone.

Moreover, another potential factor at play here concerns the effect of nuts on appetite and hunger. The relevance of this relates to the fact that some foods are more satisfying than others. The more satisfying a food is, the less we will tend to eat of it, and the less we may eat of other foods too.

There is some evidence that the sating effects of food can be related to characteristics such as its tendency to disrupt blood sugar levels (less disruptive foods being more sating) and its protein content (higher protein foods being generally more sating too). Nuts are relatively protein rich, and are not destabilising for blood sugar levels either. In theory at least, nuts should there do a decent job of satisfying the appetite.

Earlier this month saw the publication of a study in which individuals were asked to eat nuts each day in addition to their usual diet [2]. Individuals were asked to consume 43 grams of almonds (about 250 calories-worth) in one of four ways:

  1. with breakfast
  2. with lunch
  3. as a mid-morning snack
  4. as a mid-afternoon snack

Other individuals did not add nuts to their diet and were used as a comparison group (control).

Technically speaking, the groups eating the nuts should have eaten a total of about 7,000 additional calories over the course of the study, which might have translated into about an additional two pounds (about 1 kilogram) of body fat. Yet, those eating nuts were no heavier than those who did not eat them. This appeared to be due to the fact that the nut-eaters just automatically ate less of other foods.

One of the other measures used to assess subjects in this study was the ‘oral glucose tolerance test’ – a measure of blood sugar control. This test improved in those eating nuts compared to those not eating them. In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence which suggests that nut-eating may improve blood sugar control and perhaps help protect against the development of type 2 diabetes.

My experience that the appetite-sating effects of nuts can be highly valuable when this food is used as a snack between lunch and the evening meal. For many individuals, this is often too long a period of time to avoid getting very hungry. This can cause a tendency to overeat in the evening (and usually not very healthy foods at that). My experience tells me that hunger can drive increased consumption of alcohol.

And even before the eating and drinking begins, hunger and perhaps low blood sugar can cause some people to find themselves on a bit of a short fuse and quite impatient. Many individuals recognise that should they come home very hungry, they can somehow be a not very nice version of themselves, which can be annoying and distressing for those around them (such as their partner or child).

I’ve found repeatedly and consistently that when individuals manage their appetite and do not, say, come home in the evening very hungry, they eat and drink more healthily, and find their mood and tolerance are often vastly improved too.


1. García-Lorda P, et al. Nut consumption, body weight and insulin resistance. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;57 Suppl 1:S8-11

2. Tan SY, et al. Appetitive, dietary and health effects of almonds consumed with meals or as snacks: a randomized, controlled trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition advance online publication 2 October 2013 [hr]

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