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Almonds Nutrition: Heart-Healthy Brain Booster or Fat Trap?
January 15, 2019
Almonds have been prized since ancient times and are believed to be the oldest widely grown of all nut crops. Today, almonds are still one of humankind’s most beloved and healthiest nuts. Almonds nutrition benefits are appreciated across the globe, where they’re used in numerous ways: eaten raw as a healthy snack, as the base ingredient in almond butter and almond flour, blended into almond milk, and made into many types of body lotions, oils and fragrances.
What are the benefits of eating almonds? Cholesterol reduction is probably the most celebrated health benefit of almonds, one that’s been demonstrated in studies time and time again. There are many other reasons to eat almonds regularly as well. For example, almonds are low in saturated fatty acids, rich in unsaturated fatty acids, and contain filling fiber, unique and protective phytosterol antioxidants, as well as plant-based protein.
Sure, there may be a decent amount of calories in almonds nutrition, but you shouldn’t fear these calories nor almond nutrition’s fat content. Studies suggest almonds are actually beneficial when it comes to losing weight, despite their higher calorie content. One study even found that almonds consumed as snacks reduce hunger and desire to eat later in the day, and when dieters eat almonds daily, they reduce their overall calorie intake. That’s not all.
Botanically, almonds (scientifically termed Prunus dulcis) are actually very small stone fruits in the Amygdalus family. They are related to other fruits that contain hard pits, including “stone fruits” like cherries, plums and peaches. Almonds are a type of drupe nut, which means along with other nuts like macadamias, pecans and walnuts, they have multiple layers that enclose a single, hard seed in the center.
Because almonds are dry drupes, they first must be extracted (which is called “shelling”) before being sold and eaten. This is why you might see the description “shelled almonds” when you purchase ready-to-eat almonds.
In the medical world, almonds nutrition is most praised due to the presence of monounsaturated fatty acids, dietary fiber and antioxidants. Almonds also contain vitamins, like vitamin E and riboflavin, and trace minerals, such as calcium and magnesium.
Although almonds are high in calories and considered “energy-dense” (as all nuts are), they provide a whole range of critical nutrients and chemical compounds that people often lack in the standard American diet (sometimes called “SAD”). For those on a low-carb diet, they’ll be happy to know that there are a not many carbs in almonds overall, making them appropriate for something like the keto diet.
According to research on almonds nutrition data published by the United States Department of Agriculture, one ounce (approximately 28 grams) of almonds nutrition provides about:
- 161 calories
- 6.1 grams carbohydrates
- 5.9 grams protein
- 13.8 grams fat
- 3.4 grams fiber
- 7.3 milligrams vitamin E (37 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram manganese (32 percent DV)
- 57 milligrams magnesium (19 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram riboflavin (17 percent DV)
- 136 milligrams phosphorus (14 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram copper (14 percent DV)
- 73.9 milligrams calcium (7 percent DV)
- 1 milligram iron (6 percent DV)
- 197 milligrams potassium (6 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligram zinc (6 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligram niacin (5 percent DV)
In addition, almonds nutrition contains some thiamine, folate, pantothenic acid, choline and selenium.
1. Helps Prevent Heart Disease and Heart Attacks
Why are almonds good for you if you’re at risk for heart disease? Two of the star chemical compounds of almonds nutrition are healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and antioxidants that support heart health and prevent factors of cardiovascular disease. Almonds specifically supply antioxidant flavonoids, plant-based compounds present in the skin of almonds that work with vitamin E to improve artery health and reduce inflammation.
Almonds nutrition also holds key nutrients to heart health, including arginine, magnesium, copper, manganese, calcium and potassium. Studies show almonds have a consistent “bad” LDL cholesterol-lowering effect, especially in individuals with high cholesterol and diabetes. One study found that consuming almonds as a daily snack reduced the levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol without changing high-density lipoprotein (HDL “good” cholesterol).
Almonds help prevent damage from forming within artery walls and protect against dangerous plaque buildup. Almonds nutrition benefits also make them a great food to support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, in addition to fighting weight gain and obesity — three of the biggest risk factors associated with heart attacks and stroke.
2. Supports Healthy Brain Function
Almonds are often considered one of the best brain foods. Almonds nutrition is somewhat unique in that almonds contain riboflavin and L-carnitine, two key nutrients capable of positively affecting neurological activity and preventing cognitive decline.
Almonds seem to help protect the brain by fighting oxidative stress. Certain studies conducted on rats found that almonds can help improve memory, fight neurological diseases and protect against age-associated cognitive dysfunction. This is one reason why adults, especially the elderly, are encouraged to eat nuts several times per week. They are associated with a reduction in the risk for inflammation that can cause brain disorders, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Maintains Skin Health
Almonds are a great source of vitamin E and other antioxidants that nourish the skin and reduce signs of aging. Research finds that almonds nutrition contains high concentrations of catechin, epicatechin and flavonol antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol and isorhamnetin. These compounds fight skin cancer and damage by reversing oxidative stress from a poor diet, pollution and UV light exposure. Almonds’ healthy fats, plus their ability to improve circulation, also help keep skin hydrated and better able to heal wounds.
4. Helps Control Blood Sugar Levels and Prevent Diabetes
Studies show that almonds have positive effects on glucose tolerance and risk factors for metabolic syndrome. Almonds’ rich supply of MUFAs helps slow the rate at which glucose (sugar) is released into the bloodstream. In addition to managing blood sugar and preventing insulin resistance (which can occur over time when the body becomes less reactive to insulin, the sugar-controlling hormone), almonds nutrition benefits include the ability to lower other common diabetes risks: unhealthy body weight, inflammation and high levels of oxidative stress.
Diabetes occurs when your blood sugar becomes elevated due to your pancreas or cells being unable to produce insulin properly. Almonds and almond oil have been proven to both help regulate blood sugar levels and even help prevent diabetes.
In a Purdue University study, researchers found consuming almonds at breakfast (in the form of whole almonds, almond butter, almond flour and almond oil) decreased blood sugar levels and made participants feel more full, avoiding the second-meal dip that many diabetic patients or patients in the prediabetes stage experience. In fact, in that particular study, almond oil performed as well as whole almonds at encouraging insulin production after the first meal (and even better than almond flour and almond butter!).
Another trial conducted by the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Center at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto suggested that almonds, combined with foods high in carbohydrates (meaning foods with a high glycemic index), may actually decrease the glycemic level of an overall meal, again helping those with insulin resistance or at risk for diabetes to regulate their blood sugar levels.
5. Aids Weight Loss and Helps Prevent Overeating
Are almonds healthy or fattening? Despite the relatively high amount of calories in almonds, healthy fats and dietary fiber found in almonds nutrition aid in weight loss because they help you feel full. This curbs overeating and unhealthy snacking. A 2013 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded, “Almonds provide post-ingestive metabolic and appetitive benefits and did not increase the risk for weight gain.”
Although nuts are high in fat and calories, they prolong the feeling of satisfaction after you eat and keep your blood sugar more stable than low-fat meals do. Thus, you’re less likely to experience a roller coaster of energy dips and food cravings.
Studies, such as the Nurses’ Health Study, even show that almonds support a healthy metabolism. Also, people who frequently eat almonds and other nuts retain healthier body weights and lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome over time compared to those who avoid nuts.
Do almonds help you lose belly fat? Some studies show that when dieters eat almonds daily, they are less likely to overconsume carbohydrates and more likely to reach and maintain a healthier body weight. This can include having less dangerous visceral fat. Visceral fat is the kind that surrounds your organs and increases the risk for certain diseases.
For example, one 2003 article published in the International Journal of Obesity found that when women consumed almonds over a six-month period, compared to other women who didn’t eat almonds, they experienced greater reductions in weight/BMI, waist circumference, fat mass and systolic blood pressure.
6. Increases Nutrient Absorption
The body needs adequate amounts of fat in the diet in order to properly absorb “fat-soluble” nutrients, like vitamins A and D. Almonds are also capable of positively affecting the gastrointestinal tract, reducing acid buildup and balancing the body’s pH. A healthy pH level is crucial for proper digestion, immunity and disease prevention. Additionally, the nutrients present in almonds may help regulate digestive enzymes that are involved in nutrient extraction, cholesterol synthesis and bile acid production.
7. Improves Digestive Health
In addition to healthy fats and alkaline-forming molecules, almonds (especially the skin of almonds) contain prebiotic components that help with digestion, detoxification and healthy bacterial growth within the microbiota/gut flora. This is key to actually utilizing nutrients from the foods we eat.
Studies suggest that almonds and almond skins may lead to an improvement in the “intestinal microbiota profile.” This means the intestine’s bacterial activities improve and promote numerous health benefits due to the presence of prebiotic properties, the precursors for probiotics. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture found, “Both raw and roasted almonds exhibit potential prebiotic effects, including regulation of intestinal bacteria and improved metabolic activities.”
A 2014 study by the Institute of Food Science & Technology in China found that when women ate a daily dose of 56 grams of almonds over an eight-week period, significant increases in the populations of healthy gut bacteria called Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus were observed.
8. Can Help Fight Cancer and Inflammation
Almonds contain gamma-tocopherol, a type of vitamin E that acts as a powerful antioxidant. Thus, almonds fight free radical damage and oxidative stress that are linked to cancer. Many studies find a link between nut consumption and cancer prevention, including a reduced risk for colon, prostate and breast cancers.
9. Helps Maintain Dental and Bone Health
Almonds are a good source of trace minerals, including magnesium and phosphorus, which play a role in building and maintaining strong teeth and bones. Due to their mineral content, almonds nutrition benefits may include the ability to help prevent tooth decay, fight cavities, lower the risk for bone fractures and fight osteoporosis.
Almonds Nutrition in Traditional Medicine
Historically, almonds have meant many things to various cultures. Hebrew literature from 2,000 B.C. mentions almonds, as does early literature from Turkey, Romania and the Baltic peninsula. The Bible also makes numerous references to almonds, describing them as an object of value and a symbol of hope, for example, in Genesis 43:11.
Records even show that King Tut took several handfuls of almonds to his grave dating back to 1352 B.C. Years later, almond trees were believed to grow near trade routes like the famous Silk Road that connected central China with the Mediterranean. Almonds were popular in the diets of ancient Egyptians and Indian populations as well.
Today, we still see traditional uses of almonds in systems of medicine such as Ayurveda. Ancient Indian Ayurvedic practitioners believed that almonds were capable of increasing brain capacity, intellectual ability and longevity. Almonds are also highly regarded in Ayurveda for their vata-pacifying effects. This means that they are grounding, sweet and warming. It’s recommended that almonds be blanched and soaked overnight to help improve digestion and release nutrients.
Almonds come in two varieties: sweet and bitter. Oils from sweet almonds are extracted to form almond oil, a beneficial and hydrating oil with many healing body and household uses. A traditional Ayurvedic practice is massaging warmed almond oil into the skin to promote circulation, relaxation and skin health. Almond oil is said to not only lubricate the skin, but to “support all the seven dhatus (tissues), especially Shukra dhatu (reproductive tissue).”
Sweet almonds are also used in many recipes in Asia, the U.S. and the Mediterranean, where nuts are considered an important part of the Mediterranean diet. One popular use of almonds in Italy is to crush almonds into marzipan, which is used as a sweet ingredient in baked goods. They’re also added to stir-fries, used to make almond oil for cooking and used to produce almond extract that makes a good stand-in for vanilla extract. In India, almonds are often sprinkled and chopped, then added to puddings/cereal, muffins, breads, grains and salads (commonly with ingredients like walnuts, sunflower seeds, dates and raisins). They are sometimes blended into salad dressings or added to smoothies for a satisfying drink.
Almonds vs. Peanuts vs. Walnuts vs. Cashews
Compared to many other nuts, such as walnuts, almonds are a bit less calorie-dense. They are generally higher in protein and lower in fat than many other nuts too. For example, you can eat 23 almonds for 160 calories, versus 14 walnut halves for 190 calories
- Peanuts and almonds have similarities in that both are high in protein and fiber, plus lower in calories that many other nuts. However, peanuts can contain mold and are a common allergen, so take precaution when eating them. Almond butter makes a great alternative to peanut butter for people who are allergic to sensitive to peanuts or have a peanut allergy.
- Almonds contain more monounsaturated fat and less polyunsaturated fat, including less omega-3s, than walnuts do. Almonds are considered a better source of fiber, calcium and vitamin E (the best nut source of this antioxidant) than walnuts.
- Compared to almonds nutrition, cashews nutrition is a better source of vitamin K and zinc. However, cashews have less fiber, vitamin E and calcium. Cashews are one of the highest-carb nuts (although still relatively low in carbs) and generally a good way to get magnesium and healthy saturated fats.
Eating a variety of nuts gives you the most benefits. That’s because various nuts and seeds contain different amounts of healthy fats and slightly different antioxidants and minerals. For example, macadamia nuts are one of the nuts with the most monounsaturated fat and highest amount of calories. Hazelnuts are rich in unsaturated fats (mostly oleic acid) and high in magnesium, calcium and vitamins B and E. Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium (just one nut contains more than a day’s worth!) and contain a good mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.
How to Buy and Use
How many almonds should you eat a day? When it comes to all nuts, the standard recommendation is to eat a small “handful,” or roughly a 1/4 cup (about 1 to 1.5 ounces), of nuts at a time — rather than getting carried away with a very large portion size that can cause a stomach ache. Studies show that daily consumption of almonds in this amount (1.5 ounces) is enough to help prevent the onset of cardiometabolic diseases in healthy individuals .If you eat almond butter as opposed to whole almonds, about one to two tablespoons at one time is considered a standard serving size.
Types of Almonds Sold in Stores
Not all almonds are created equal. You definitely want to avoid almonds and any nuts coated in sugar, hydrogenated oils and tons of sodium. Many nuts undergo processing that lower their health benefits. For example, by heating nuts to very high temperatures, some of their antioxidants can be destroyed.
Let’s talk about the different types of almonds available in grocery stores. For example, what are blanched almonds? What about raw almonds?
- Raw almonds — Raw almonds are those that have not been cooked, blanched or pasteurized and still have their brown skins intact. Technically, there is no legal definition of “raw” when it comes to almonds, so it’s still possible that raw almonds sold in stores have been heated to some extent. However, most authorities claim that studies show that pasteurization doesn’t change the nutritional value of almonds.
- Blanched almonds — Blanched almonds are raw almonds that have been boiled in water quickly, for about one to two minutes, in order to help shed their outer skins.
One downside of consuming almonds produced in the U.S. is that United States law demands that all raw almonds be pasteurized, steamed or irradiated before being sold to consumers. According to the USDA, there are several mandatory pasteurization treatment processes to reduce the level of potential contamination in almonds “without diminishing the product’s quality, nutritional value or sensory qualities (taste and crunch).” These include: oil roasting, dry roasting and blanching, and steam processing. Many go through steam pasteurization so the almonds don’t carry bacteria from the fields to consumers. The whole process from start to finish can take about nine hours.
Almonds contain natural fatty acids and oils that are sensitive to high heat, so when they’re highly processed it’s possible to turn these oils “rancid.” For example, when almonds are roasted, they’re usually soaked in hydrogenated or GMO oils, fat that’s harmful and promotes heart disease. As a rule of thumb, the less processing done to almonds the better. Pre-shelled and roasted almonds are likely less beneficial than lightly blanched or raw almonds still found in their natural casing.
One step that can actually increase the nutrient content of almonds is soaking and sprouting them. Soaking and sprouting almonds removes some of their naturally occurring antinutrients that block the body from absorbing some minerals. Soak them overnight for 12–24 hours in a big bowl, covering them with water and rinsing them the next morning.
How About Almond Butter or Almond Flour?
Both are great options for adding more almonds nutrition into your diet. Almond butter is simply ground almonds, but look for butters that contain no added oils or sugar. Your best bet? Make almond butter yourself by grinding the nuts in a high-speed blender or food processor until smooth.
When it comes to almond flour (also called almond meal), again look for simple and straightforward ingredients, usually just almonds. Use almond meal to replace bread crumbs, and combine it with other gluten-free flours or coconut flour to make baked goods.
What about almond milk? Almond milk has become a very popular dairy alternative. It’s low in calories and can make a smart swap for regular milk. Just make sure you choose a brand that is unsweetened and doesn’t contain many hard-to-pronounce chemicals. You can also make homemade almond milk by blending and straining almonds, which leaves behind a “milky” liquid that can be sweetened with vanilla extract and stevia.
You can take advantage of almonds nutrition benefits by making some of these healthy recipes:
- Almond Butter Banana Protein Bars Recipe
- Almond Berry Cereal Recipe
- Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Recipe
History and Facts
Would you believe that today the almond industry is estimated at $4.3 billion annually and over 2 billion pounds of almonds are produced worldwide each year? Unlike many other nuts and fruits, the U.S. — specifically California, which is actually the only state to produce almonds commercially — is the largest producer of almonds, producing about 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
Almonds might be growing in popularity every year as research reveals more about almonds nutrition benefits, but almond consumption actually goes back thousands of years to around 4,000 B.C. The almond tree species is native to the Middle East and South Asia. A tall tree with pink and white flowers, it grows in warm and dry climates, which is why it spread through the Mediterranean region and became a staple in the diet there.
Wild almonds are actually bitter and naturally contain toxic substances like deadly cyanide, so humans had to first find a certain type of “sweet” almond among the many different almond tree species before domesticating them. In India and Pakistan, almonds have been a mainstream part of the diet for centuries, where they’re called badam. Almonds were first spread by humans in ancient times along the shores of the Mediterranean into northern Africa, Asia and southern Europe, eventually making their way to the U.S. Along the way, the word “almond” was given to the nut, which comes from the old French word almande.
Risks and Side Effects
As with all nuts, allergies can be an issue for some people when it comes to almonds. Children are more susceptible to nut allergies and should avoid almonds if they have a known allergy.
Can too many almonds be bad for you? For those not allergic almonds, there are a few other potential downsides to almonds when eaten in large amounts — mainly that they provide a high amount of calories and too much vitamin E in some cases. Eating too many nuts can trigger weight gain, cause certain medicine interactions (like vitamin E overdose) and might lead to gastrointestinal problems in some, but this is usually only a risk if you consume a very high amount. As with all sources of healthy fats, they should make up a substantial part of your diet, but portion control is important.
One final note is that raw almonds have the potential to carry bacteria, which is why the USDA requires them to be processed. In rare cases, salmonella and E. coli have been carried by raw almonds, so as of 2007, raw, untreated California almonds aren’t technically available in the U.S. — although most people experience no problems eating raw almonds.
When it comes to bitter almonds, according to the Food and Drug Administration, bitter almonds are considered “poisonous” since they contain certain acids that can cause problems in rare cases, so they aren’t recommended for consumption — although some alternative health practitioners disagree with this.
- Almonds (Prunus dulcis) are small stone fruits in the Amygdalus family. They are a good source of healthy fats, vitamin E, manganese, riboflavin, magnesium and protective phytosterol antioxidants.
- Even though almonds are energy-dense and high in unsaturated fatty acids, the benefits of almonds still make this nut a very nutrient-dense food, especially for heart health.
- The top nine health benefits of almonds nutrition include preventing heart disease, supporting brain function, maintaining skin health, preventing diabetes, assisting weight loss, supporting digestive health, fighting inflammation and cancer, and maintaining bone health.