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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Healthiest Nuts: 16 Nutritious Nuts Ranked from Best to Worst

Nuts are excellent, nutritious additions to any diet, but what are the healthiest nuts to eat?

Before we get into our rankings of the healthiest nuts, it's useful to see what makes nuts healthy.

The Health Benefits of Nuts

Many epidemiological studies have shown that eating nuts is correlated with many markers of good health and lower rates of obesity and chronic diseases.

Replacing parts of your diet with nuts can have a positive effect on your health. As state by Harvard Health,

"An analysis of data from the Harvard-based Nurses' Health Study showed that having one serving of nuts a day is associated with a 30% lower risk of heart disease compared with having one serving of red meat a day."

And in the Blue Zones, where the population has a disproportionately high rate of active, healthy centenarians, nuts are a key part of their diets.

Why are Nuts Healthy?

The most nutritious nuts have a wide variety (and high density) of nutrients important for a balanced diet.

Things like vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals are found in nuts, sometimes in high amounts. This is important, because deficiencies in these micronutrients can lead to poor health.

The best nuts have a wide variety of these nutrients.

Nuts are Nutrient-Dense

The healthiest nuts also have a high density of these nutrients. What does this mean?

It's important to look at the nutrient density of foods, because ideally we should be consuming a moderate amount of calories.

If you consume more calories than you expend throughout the day, you'll gain weight. So, eating a reasonable amount of calories is an important first step in a healthy diet.

But within the calories you eat, you want to make sure these other essential nutrients are coming along for the ride!

This is also important for nutrients you might want to eat less of.

For example, sugar.

100 grams of blackberries have around 4.9 grams of sugar, whereas 10 grams of cashews have around 5.9 grams of sugar.

But the _density _of sugar in blackberries vs. cashews is very different.

100 grams of blackberries comes in at around 43 calories, while 100 grams of cashews is around 553 calories. That means, while a handful of cashews might satisfy your hunger for a while, you'll be reaching for more calories soon after your blackberry treat!

We do still recommend blackberries! See our similar ranking of the healthiest fruits

So on an equal-calorie comparison, blackberries have about 0.45 grams of sugar per calorie, while cashews have about 0.04 grams of sugar per calorie.

The story is looking very different.

The World Health Organization recommends that fewer than 10% of your calories come from sugar (ideally, less than 5%).

On a calorie-based comparison, cashews are _much less sugar-dense _than blackberries.

The Healthiest Nuts have a Heart Healthy Macronutrient Profile

Micronutrients are important for a well-balanced diet. But it's also good to keep your macronutrients in check, too.

Your intake of dietary fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are important to keep within recommended balanced ratios.

Also important is the composition of these macronutrients.

For example, the American Heart Association suggests that less than 10% of your calories come from saturated fats.

The most nutritious nuts in our ranking are low in saturated fats.

But fat is a critical and necessary component of your diet. Some fat is important.

And unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats in particular, show heart healthy properties.

Many of the health benefits of nuts derive from their quality fat content, having low saturated fats and high in linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid (two polyunsaturated fats).

Many nuts also have a decent concentration of protein, too. Almonds, pistachios, and cashews are a few high protein nuts.

The Best Nuts are Good Sources of Fiber

Fiber is a very important dietary component that we often don't get enough of in our diets.

Learn more about fiber intake, and see how much we eat on average!

Fiber is important for everything from heath health and gut health to weight-loss and insulin regulation.

The healthiest nuts are fiber-dense. A few particularly high on the list are gingko nuts and chestnuts.

The Most Nutritious Nuts are Rich with Phytochemicals and Antioxidants

Whole foods are advocated among nutritionists in large part due to their vast array of various nutrients packaged together in piece. The synergies from this often add up to a number greater than the sum of their parts.

For example, the high sugar content of fruits is much less of a health issue because their high fiber content helps regulate the insulin response.

And fat-soluble vitamins are better absorbed when consumed with some amount of dietary fat.

Another benefit along these lines are phytochemicals - a term that embodies the molecules present in plant-based foods that often serve a nutrition and biochemical purpose but are not as well characterized by nutrition science.

For example, anthocyanins are flavonoids widely distributed in fruits and vegetables that exhibit antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties.

And others like flavanols and isoflavones similarly show evidence of protective health benefits.

Similarly, the most nutritious nuts also contain caratenoids like lutein, shown to provide positive benefits to eye health.

The Healthiest Nuts Have High Concentrations of Many Nutrients

To rank high our list of the healthiest nuts, it takes more than just a high density of one or two nutrients.

For example, chestnuts have nearly 5.5X the daily recommended intake (DRI) value on a per-calorie basis - far more than any of the other nuts.

But in our ranking, this doesn't provide over twice the nutrient value of gingko nuts with around 2.2X the DRI.

Why? You will just pee out most of the extra!

Consuming many of these nutrients in excess of quantities that should provide enough nutrition to thwart both clinical and sub-clinical deficiencies won't provide much added benefit.

Therefore, the healthiest nuts in our ranking have a high density of nutrients, but also a breadth of nutrients. They provide a more complete and well-balanced source of more nutrition than the others.

Taking all of this into consideration, the gingko nut ranks #1 on our list of the healthiest nuts!

Although less popular in the US, gingko nuts - nuts from the gingko biloba tree - are popular in Japan.

Gingko nuts are dense with many essential nutrients, they contain important phytochemicals, they are low calorie and dense with fiber, and they have a heart healthy fat profile.

What's last on the list?

Well, without further adieu, here is a snapshot of our ranking of the healthiest nuts from best to worst. Feel free to use our interactive chart, here!

What are the Healthiest Nuts?

High Protein Nuts

Plants and other non-meat sources of protein are often claimed to be poor sources of protein. And while they don't have the extend of amino acids or density of protein of many meats, the healthiest nuts nevertheless are great sources of protein.

As calculated using the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score, high protein nuts include almonds, pistachios, and cashews. On a per-calorie basis, these top the charts for high protein nuts.

See our analysis of the protein in nuts, below. Or see our interactive chart, here!

Low Calorie Nuts (Best Nuts for Weight Loss)

Nuts are a nutritious snack that have been shown to help people lose weight.

Despite being high in fat (although the fat quality is high, which we'll get in to), and thus, high in calories, they are nutrient dense snacks that can help you stay full due to their high fiber content.

The best nuts for weight loss, therefore, have two things in common:

  1. They are low-calorie nuts, and

  2. They are high fiber-density nuts

This combo will help you keep calories down, while also helping to keep you fuller, longer.

According to our rankings, the best nuts for weight loss are gingko nuts and chestnuts.

See a snapshot of our analysis, below. Or check out the interactive chart, here!

Heart Healthy Nuts (Fat Quality)

Nuts have developed a great reputation as a heart healthy snack. Studies show they can reduce your risk of heart disease when they are used to substitute less healthy options including refined carbohydrates or foods high in saturated fats.

Nuts have plenty of flavanoids and other phytochemicals that have been shown to have cardiometabolic benefits.

But one major reason for this distinction is their fat quality.

The most heart healthy nuts have a good fatty acid profile despite their high fat content. This means they generally have higher quantities of unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats.

Saturated fats have been linked to poor cardiovascular outcomes, so the American Heart Association recommends consuming less than 10% of your calories from them.

Of the 16 nuts we ranked, only the pilinut, the macadamia nut, the cashew, and the Brazil nut exceeded that threshold on a per-calorie basis.

But not all saturated fats are created equal...

Heart Healthy Nuts Improve Your Cholesterol Profile

Fats are thought to hurt or improve heart health by modulating HDL and LDL cholesterol levels.

It has been shown that the ratio of HDL to LDL is a risk factor for heart disease, and fatty acids that increase HDL more than they increase LDL are better for your heart.

Palmitic acid is a saturated fatty acid that increases LDL more than it increases HDL. This is generally not an improvement.

But lauric acid, myristic acid, and stearic acid have been shown to increase HDL more than LDL when switching these fats from carbohydrates - a good thing.

So on average, saturated fats do little to change your cholesterol profile when switching and equal amount of calories from carbohydrates, but the specific saturated fatty acids do matter.

But beyond saturated fats, unsaturated fatty acids improve this cholesterol profile even further.

Monounsaturated fats, like oleic acid, improve the HDL:LDL ratio when switching from carbohydrates, but polyunsaturated fats, like linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, improve it even further.

The most heart healthy nut on our ranking is the walnut! Walnut's benefits to health are plentiful, but their fat quality makes it our most heart healthy nut!

See the snapshot of our analysis, below. Or use our interactive charts, here!

Nuts with Good Fat Quality

In Conclusion

The gingko nut from the gingko biloba tree tops our list of the healthiest nuts. But also high on the list are pistachios, hazelnuts, and almonds.

And many of the most nutritious nuts rank high on our other rankings:

  • Micronutrient Density

    • Pistachios had the highest density of essential vitamins and minerals.

  • High Protein Nuts

    • Almonds had the highest concentration of quality protein.

  • Best Nuts for Weight Loss

    • Gingko nuts and chestnuts both had a weight loss combination of being low calorie nuts and high fiber nuts - great for leaving you satisfied with less.

  • Heart Healthy Nuts

    • Walnuts had the best fat quality score, with lower quantities of LDL-raising fatty acids and high quantities of heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

So there you have it! You can hardly go wrong. Remember that all nuts can be excellent, nutritious snacks to any well-balanced diet.

Plus, they're delicious! And each has a unique flavor worth enjoying!

Where does your favorite land on the list!?


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