From old classics (almonds) to newly popular (chia) varieties, nuts and seeds are finding their way onto plates and into everything from smoothies to baked goods. As a group, these nutrient-rich kernels have rightfully earned a reputation as heart-healthy treats that can reduce the risk for a multitude of diseases. But not all are created equal. Thanks to diverse composition, each variety has something different to offer, from heaps of healthy fats to that elusive complete vegetarian protein to an array of vitamins and minerals. Here’s your guide to some of the most popular nuts and seeds that can be a great addition to your diet.
If you’re looking for broad nutrition backed by well-established science, almonds are the way to go. They’re rich in fiber (4 grams per ounce), packed with protein (6 grams per ounce), and loaded with vitamins and minerals. A single serving—about 23 nuts—contains 8% of the daily recommended calcium and a whopping 37% of daily recommended vitamin E, an antioxidant that has been linked to improved cognitive function and reduced Alzheimer’s risk.
Research is just starting to shine a light on walnuts for their mix of bioactive micronutrients that work together for the brain and body. Walnut consumption has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol and inflammation and even counteract tumor growth. And they’re the only tree nut with a significant amount of ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid that early studies suggest offers neuroprotection, improves blood flow to brain arteries, and contributes to learning and stroke recovery.
When it comes to nut-based proteins, it turns out that cashews just might be the star. Though other varieties—pistachios and almonds—contain more of the muscle-building macronutrient per serving, cashews stand out because their amino acid profile is complete. While most nuts lack lysine, cashews don’t have that problem. As a bonus, cashew protein is about 85% digestible, making it a better source than black beans and almost as good as animal-based alternatives.
Brazil nuts are finally getting the attention they deserve. A recent report from the American Heart Association praise these giant seeds for increasing satiety and stabilizing glucose and insulin responses. What’s more, the protein in Brazil nuts (about 4 grams per serving) is easily digestible—nearly 90%, which is on par with fish. Brazil nuts are also an excellent source of selenium, a mineral that helps balance hormones and regulate the thyroid, but don’t overdo it; one ounce contains almost eight times the daily recommended intake, so excessive consumption can cause selenium toxicity.
Coconuts have a long history of being used throughout the tropics as both medicine and food, and for good reason. Because it is rich in potassium, calcium, niacin, and other inorganic ions, coconut water can serve as a natural electrolyte. The white, meaty fruit also has its share of benefits. In particular, a single serving, which is about a cup shredded, contains 7.2 grams of fiber and 60% of the recommended daily intake of manganese, a mineral that’s important for building bones, regulating energy use, and healing wounds.
Research on hazelnuts is relatively limited, but their nutrient makeup suggests they should offer some health benefits. Compared to other nuts, hazelnuts have a high ratio (10:1) of desirable monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) to saturated fatty acids (SFA) and a high level of alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), a nutrient that does everything from preventing blood clots to boosting the immune system to minimizing cell damage.
With nearly 22 grams of fat per ounce, macadamias are among the fattiest of tree nuts. However, they’re also one of the few natural sources of palmitoleic acid. Research shows that this monounsaturated fatty acid has promise in stroke prevention as well as weight reduction and metabolic regulation.
Pecan nuts are another choice with an extremely high ratio of beneficial unsaturated to less healthful saturated fatty acids. Together, linoleic acid, oleic acid, and polyphenols such as EGCG work together to limit the development of arterial plaque and metabolic syndrome.
These tasty morsels are relatively low-fat, low-calorie nuts that pack a major nutritional punch. The lipids they do contain are mostly in the form of heart-healthy oleic and linoleic fatty acids. What’s more, pistachios have more than 1,400 micrograms of lutein and zeaxanthin per serving, making them the only nuts with significant amounts of these cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Research suggests that their unusually high levels of vitamin K—3 ounces of pistachios contain 16% of the recommended daily allowance—protect against a range of chronic conditions, from type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases to cancer.
Flax seeds can be incorporated into all kinds of foods from baked goods to smoothies, and their health potential is broad. Their wealth of omega-3 fatty acids may protect against migraines, treat gastric ulcers, and even help manage cholesterol and blood pressure. And since the seeds also provide roughly twice the fiber found in high-fiber beans, studies show they reduce hunger, promote the excretion of cholesterol, and keep the gastrointestinal system in working order.
Chia seeds are used similarly to their flax cousins, but they have some important distinctions when it comes to health. Like flax, chia is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. But where the tiny round seeds really stand out is in their antioxidant makeup: Chia seeds have approximately 42% more polyphenols than flax seeds.
A favorite year-round snack and a great way to get the most out of autumn jack-o-lanterns and holiday pie scraps, pumpkin seeds provide healthful fatty acids and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals, including manganese, selenium, copper, and zinc. And thanks to their high proportions of amino acids, they also constitute a quality vegetarian protein.
Written by Stacey McKenna for Matcha in partnership with Nuts for Protein.