Dietary fat isn’t a bad word. You need a certain amount of fat in your diet to get two essential fatty acids called linoleic and linolenic acid that your body needs but can’t make. Plus, fat makes up the cell membranes of all the cells in your body. Without enough dietary fat, your skin and hair would be dry. Plus, a very low-fat diet increases the risk of gallstones and fertility issues. In addition, your brain needs fat to function properly since you need fat to make neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin that affect mood.
However, some types of fat are healthier than others. Most health care professionals recommend limiting saturated fat, the predominant fat in animal and dairy-based foods, and consuming more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, forms of fat that are heart-healthy. Fortunately, those are the types of fat that are abundant in nuts. However, some nuts have healthier fat profiles than others.
Nuts Highest in Monounsaturated Fat
Monounsaturated fat is the type of fat abundant in olive oil and certain fruits, such as avocado, and it’s heart-healthy. Studies show monounsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol and may explain some of the heart health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Which nut is highest in monounsaturated fat? The macadamia nut wins that distinction, followed closely by the hazelnut. Pecans and almonds have respectable amounts of monounsaturated fat too, but less than macadamia and hazelnuts. Macadamia nuts are also low in carbohydrates and high in fiber, making them easy on the blood sugar.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fats
Most of the remaining fat in nuts is of the polyunsaturated variety. However, there are two general classes of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Of the two, omega-3s are the healthier choice. Although omega-6s aren’t necessarily harmful, there is one problem. If you consume too many omega-6s, your body can convert one omega-6, called linolenic acid, to an inflammatory chemical called arachidonic acid. In turn, that can promote inflammation. In contrast, omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.
Most people get a higher ratio of omega-6s in their diet to omega-3s, because most ultra-processed foods and vegetable oils are high in omega-6s. The typical Western diet has a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 as high as 20 to 1, whereas a healthier ratio would be more like 2 to 1. So, most people can benefit from increasing the quantity of omega-3s in their diet. You can get omega-3s from fish oil and fatty fish or from plant-based sources, including seeds and nuts.
Which Nuts Have More Omega-3s versus Omega-6s?
Since omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, it would be helpful to know which nuts are higher in omega-3s and which have more omega-6s. To look at the omega-3 content, it’s useful to examine which nuts supply the greatest percentage of the adequate intake, or % AI, for nuts. An adequate intake of omega-3 fats is 1600 milligrams per day. In other words, that’s the minimum amount you should get daily.
How does each nut compare in terms of omega-3s? Walnuts are a standout source of omega-3 relative to other nuts, with an ounce of walnuts supplying 161% of the adequate intake. Next in line is pecans. However, an ounce supplies far less, around 18% of the day’s adequate intake. Although still a heart-healthy nut, an ounce of pistachios supplies only 5% of the day’s adequate intake of omega-3s. Most of the remaining fatty acids in these nuts are omega-6s. Therefore, if you’d like to get the most anti-inflammatory effects from the nuts you eat, walnuts are a standout choice with their high omega-3 content.
All Nuts are Heart Healthy
Although walnuts are a cut above other nuts because of their omega-3 content, and macadamia nuts for their monounsaturated fats, studies show that all nuts are a heart-healthy snack. Studies show people who eat nuts most days of the week have lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and lower mortality from all causes.
How can you explain these findings? Research shows nuts reduce several key markers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein and IL-6, markers that rise when the body is inflamed. Reducing inflammation may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by reigning in blood vessel inflammation that causes blood clots to form. So, as you can’t go wrong with any nuts, choose the ones you enjoy most. Most nuts are also an excellent source of other heart-healthy components, including magnesium, vitamin E, fiber, and antioxidants.
The Bottom Line
The fat in nuts is the heart-healthy kind, but choosing nuts that are higher in monounsaturated fats, like macadamia nuts, and omega-3s, like walnuts, may be an especially heart-healthy choice. Be mindful that nuts are high in calories, although studies show that nuts eaters tend to be leaner. Still, watch your portion sizes. Addictive as they are, it’s better not to eat them directly out of the bag or can. It’s easy to lose track!
Heart.org. “Monounsaturated Fat”
MyFoodData.com. “Top 10 Foods Highest in Omega 3 Fatty Acids”
Loma Linda University. “The Adventist Health Study: Findings for Nuts”