Athletes commonly have a love-hate relationship with nuts. They love them, but try to stay away from them. “I don't dare keep a jar of cashews in my house. I'd end up eating them all and gaining weight,” complained one rower. Although she knows nuts are healthful and good for her, the over-ruling perception is nuts are “sooooo fattening.”
While nuts are indeed a calorie-dense food, the good news is nut-eaters are not fatter than people who avoid nuts (1). That's because nuts are satiating; that is, they stay with you and keep you feeling “fed.” A woman-size handful of nuts (150 to 200 calories) for an afternoon snack often ends up being lower in calories than the 100-calorie pack of crackers that leads to another and yet another 100-calorie pack because you are still hungry. Snacks like crackers, pretzels and rice cakes fail to keep you satiated because they lack fiber, protein and fat —and that's what nuts have to offer.
A study with overweight teens highlights this point. The students were part of “The Family Lifestyle and Over-weight Prevention Program” in Houston, TX (2). The teens were given a healthy after-school snack to help improve the quality of their diet: nuts and peanut butter along with fruits and vegetables (such as apple slices with peanut butter, baby carrots dipped in peanut butter, trail mix with peanuts and dried fruits). These snacks replaced the former popular choices of chips and snack cakes. The kids lost weight and kept it off—and equally important, they liked the snacks. There’s no denying a plain apple may seem “boring” and unpopular because it is not substantial enough to satisfy afternoon hunger. But add some peanut butter, and that apple becomes a welcomed treat!
When the afternoon munchies strike, I invite you to “go nuts” (in moderation) and observe the benefits of eating a handful of nuts. You may well discover you are less hungry for a longer period of time. While a few rice cakes may fill you for half an hour, a few nuts might last for two and a half hours (3).
If you are afraid the “handful” will turn into a “jarful”, remember the best way to take the power away from a “trouble food” is to eat it more often. That is, if you end up overeating nuts (or any food, for that matter), you may be thinking “I just blew my diet by eating some almonds, so I might as well eat the whole jar to get rid of them. Then, I can get back on my diet.” Or, if you are at a social event and end up eating too many peanuts, you might be thinking “This is my last chance to eat peanuts before I go back on my diet. I'd better eat them all now because I shouldn't eat them ever again.”
The solution to over-eating nuts is to change your relationship with them and acknowledge you like nuts: “I enjoy nuts so much, I’m going to eat them more often—at every meal and snack!” That way, you eliminate your fear of being denied of this favorite food. You won't have to eat the whole jar, because another jar will be waiting in the pantry. While this might sound scary to overeaters, the reality is, after three days of eating nuts at every meal and snack, you likely will be content to cut back to enjoying nuts once or twice a day (or week) and no longer will they have any power over you.