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Is It a Nut or Is It a Seed?

December 17, 2015| By

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage the consumption of nutrient-dense foods, and that includes nuts and seeds. Touted for their heart-healthy benefits, nuts and seeds are rich with unsaturated fats, vitamin E, and other substances that have many other health-promoting properties.

In this December issue of the Energize Newsletter for Nutrition Educators, whether you are roasting chestnuts on an open fire or not, you can read about the role of nuts and seeds in the diet and the value of encouraging your clients to include these nutritious foods in their meals and snacks.

Nuts vs Seeds: What’s the Difference?

Nuts and seeds are often lumped together because their nutrient composition is similar. Nuts are fruits, usually surrounded by a thin and slightly bitter “skin,” and a hard shell. On the other hand, a seed is a small plant enclosed in the seed coat, surrounded by all the food it needs to grow once it gets planted in soil. The seed coat or husk is usually removed, but not always. For example, sesame and poppy seeds can be eaten with the shell on. Peanuts, while technically a legume, are lumped into the nuts category because Americans eat them in much the same way as nuts, rather than in cooked dishes the way that legumes (beans and peas) are prepared.

Nuts and seeds generally consumed by Americans, and used in the database for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) include: almonds, almond butter, almond paste, Brazil nuts, cashews, cashew butter, chestnuts, flax seeds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, peanut butter, peanut flour, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, sesame butter (tahini), sesame seeds, sesame paste, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.

Health Benefits of Nuts and Seeds

Eating patterns that include nuts and seeds are associated with improved nutrient intake and diet quality. Specifically, nuts and seeds may promote cardiovascular health. They are also associated with decreased obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, as well as a healthy brain and supple skin.

Nut and Seed Consumption

About 4 in 10 American adults ate nuts or seeds on a given day in a study, according to a study published by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Non-Hispanic white adults consumed more (43.6%) than Hispanics (25.5%) or Blacks (23.7%).

Nuts and seeds were overwhelmingly consumed (80%) as a nut butter or as a single-item food, such as a snack rather than an ingredient in candy, breads, cakes, cookies, cereals, or other mixed dishes. Interestingly, about 7% of nuts and seeds were consumed as part of a grain-based dish.  The study adds that 63.3% of men and 60.5% of women did not consume any nuts or seeds at all, while 14.4% of men and 11.8% of women consumed more than 1.5 ounces that day.

Recommended Amounts of Nuts and Seeds

Although a specific amount isn’t noted in the Dietary Guidelines, one ounce of peanut butter or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds counts as a one-ounce equivalent in the Protein Foods group. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that 1.5 ounces per day (roughly a small handful) may reduce heart disease.

In 2003, the FDA approved a qualified health claim that, “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Yes, They Have Fat and Calories, But There’s More

As much as 80% of the calories in nuts comes from fat. Although it’s considered a healthy fat, like most foods they should be consumed in moderation. The nutrient composition of nuts and seeds varies from one to the next, however this group of foods overall averages about 240 calories per 1.5 ounce portion. Nuts and seeds fall into the Protein Foods group in MyPlate.

Besides being packed with protein, most nuts and seeds have at least some of these naturally occurring healthful substances: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, vitamin E, plant sterols (help to lower cholesterol), and L-arginine (promotes flexibility in artery walls, making them less prone to blood clots that can block blood flow). Since different nuts and seeds boast their own distinctive nutritional benefits, consuming a variety is best.

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