Nuts and seeds for heart health

Nuts and seeds may be small, but they are packed full of goodness. Our review of the latest evidence shows why nuts and seeds are an important part of a heart-healthy diet.

Small white bowls containing a different variety of nuts and seeds within each bowl.
Eating 3-4 small handfuls of nuts and seeds each week is helpful to reduce the risk of heart disease. Further heart health benefits are likely with intakes higher than this.

In this article

Our position statement

The Heart Foundation has reviewed evidence on nuts and seeds to help you understand what’s best for your heart health.

When we talk about nuts and seeds, we mean all the different types of nuts and seeds that can be eaten whole, sliced or ground.

Our position statement doesn’t cover nut and seed oils, nut milks or dietary supplements, as nutritionally these are different types of food products that are out of our scope.

Nuts and seeds position statement

Types of nuts

There are many ways to define nuts. The simplest way to describe a nut is that it is a dry fruit containing one or two edible seeds inside a hard shell1.

Nuts include:

  • almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • hazelnuts
  • cashews
  • macadamias
  • pecans
  • pine nuts
  • pistachios
  • walnuts
  • peanuts (these are actually legumes but they are grouped with nuts because they contain similar nutrients2).

Chestnuts and coconuts are not included in this list because when compared to other nuts, chestnuts are higher in carbohydrate and coconuts are higher in saturated fat2.

Types of seeds

Seeds are usually smaller than nuts and may be eaten in a different way. You’re more likely to sprinkle seeds onto dishes and find them added to foods like breakfast cereals or crackers instead of eating them by themselves. The nutrients found in seeds are very similar to those in nuts.

Seeds include:

  • chia seeds
  • hemp seeds
  • flaxseeds/linseeds
  • poppy seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • sunflower seeds.

You can buy most seeds at the supermarket, and they are often cheaper than nuts.

Various different types of seeds scattered artistically across a white surface.

How nutritious are nuts and seeds?

Nuts and seeds may be small, but they are packed with nutrients. They provide us with fibre, plant protein and healthy fats – which are all beneficial for heart health1,2.

Each type of nut and seed contains different vitamins (like folate), minerals (like magnesium and calcium) and phytochemicals, which are needed by our bodies in very small amounts but provide protective effects against heart disease1,3-5.

If you eat a range of nuts and seeds, you’re more likely to benefit from all the different nutrients they can provide.

Are nuts and seeds good for my heart?

The evidence shows that eating around 15g nuts and seeds per day decreases the risk of coronary heart disease by around 20% compared with no or low nut and seed intakes. This can be achieved by eating 3-4 small handfuls of nuts and seeds each week. Further heart health benefits are likely if you eat more than this.

Regularly eating nuts and seeds within an overall healthy diet has a small benefit on lowering total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. There may also be a small benefit to increasing high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol for those at high risk of cardiovascular disease.

Nuts and seeds are beneficial for all groups in the population including people at high risk of heart disease.

Salad with a baked pumpkin, kale, broccoli, and pumpkin seeds in ceramic plate on stone or concrete background table background. Rustic style.

Get the benefits from nuts and seeds

The best foods for your body are whole foods that are close to how they’re found in nature with as little processing as possible. Unsalted nuts and seeds without added flavouring or coatings are the best options for heart health.

When choosing nuts and seeds, look for:

  • whole, sliced or ground nuts and seeds
  • raw or roasted
  • the lowest sodium (salt) per 100g or unsalted
  • plain and without flavourings or coatings
  • with skins on (only where relevant).

What about peanut butter?

Many nut and seed butters like peanut butter have undergone very little processing and are an affordable way to get nuts and seeds into your diet. They are a more nutrient-rich option when compared to other spreads like jam or honey.

When choosing nut and seed butters like peanut butter, look for:

  • a high proportion of nuts or ‘nuts only’
  • plain with no added sugar or flavours like syrups or chocolate (check the ingredients list)
  • the lowest sodium (salt) per 100g or unsalted.

 

 

Light Healthy Snack made from Banana Slices and peanut Butter on wholegrain toast on Grey Background

What about products containing nuts and seeds?

A handful of nuts or a sprinkle of seeds is the best way to include them into your diet.

However, another way to help you eat them is to look for nuts and seeds listed as a key ingredient in the products you regularly buy like breads, breakfast cereals, crackers and dips.

Some food products containing nuts and seeds have been heavily processed and may have added sugar, salt (sodium) and/or saturated fat with very few nuts or seeds.

It is important to read the ingredients list to help you see the proportion of nuts or seeds in the product and to check what else has been added. A long list of ingredients full of words you probably can’t pronounce is one sign that a food is highly processed.

Comparing the levels of saturated fat, sugar and sodium between products can help you to decide on the best option too.

What does 3-4 handfuls a week look like?

You may not be able to eat nuts and seeds every day but try to include them most days. Nuts, seeds and peanut butter are worth the investment because they boost the protein of your snacks and meals and help to keep you satisfied.

You may not need to make huge adjustments to what you are already eating to include 3-4 handfuls each week (around 15g per day). Remember there are likely to be further heart health benefits when you eat more than this each week.

Monday1 tbsp of peanut butter on wholegrain toast
Tuesday1 small handful (30g) of mixed nuts as a snack
Wednesday½ tbsp of toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on a stir-fry
Thursday1 tbsp of chia seeds used to make oat and chia seed pudding
Friday1 tbsp of peanut butter added to a smoothie
Saturday½ tbsp of sunflower seeds sprinkled on top of muesli
Sunday1 tbsp of sliced almonds toasted and sprinkled on top of a salad

 

Nuts and seeds are all different shapes and sizes. A small handful is around 30 grams (or one-third of a measuring cup).

A hand holding a wide variety of nuts and seeds

A tablespoon of peanut butter is around 15 grams.

Has the advice changed since our last position statement?

We continue to recommend New Zealand adults regularly eat nuts and seeds as part of a heart-healthy diet. When we looked at the latest evidence, most of the benefits to heart health were seen when people ate up to 15g nuts per day (approximately 3-4 handfuls a week).

We acknowledge that people may eat more than this and further heart health benefits are likely with higher intakes. We encourage all people no matter their starting point to consider how they can eat more nuts and seeds on a regular basis.

Our recommendation is broadly consistent with other national and international guidelines (including the New Zealand Eating and Activity guidelines) where nuts and seeds are encouraged ‘on most days of the week’.

Will I put on weight if I eat nuts and seeds?

Although nuts and seeds are high in fat, eating them does not cause weight gain.

In large population studies and clinical trials, higher nut intakes were not associated with greater body weight6-8. In fact, eating nuts is associated with a lower body weight.

This is likely due to the rich protein, fat and dietary fibre contained in nuts which help people to feel satisfied after a meal or snack and can reduce your overall food intake.

Two pieces of wholegrain toast topped with avocado and nuts and seeds on a white place and a white and gray marble surface.

What if I have an allergy to nuts or seeds?

All tree nuts, peanuts and seeds can trigger an allergic reaction, which can be life-threatening (anaphylaxis). Follow the advice of your GP or health professional if you have had a reaction to any type of nut or seed.

If you have an allergy, always check the labels of all foods before purchasing to check nuts and seeds are not present, including products that ‘may contain traces of nuts and/or seeds’.

Where it is safe to do so and there is no risk of cross-contamination, people with a peanut or tree nut allergy may be able to safely consume seeds.

How can I eat more nuts and seeds?

Nuts and seeds can easily be added to your everyday meals to give them a heart health boost. They add flavour and texture and can be added to almost anything. Small changes to the meals you regularly eat can make a big difference to your diet.

Here are some tips to eat more nuts and seeds:

  • Have a handful of plain, unsalted nuts as a snack. Choose mixed nuts so that you get a variety or rotate the types of nuts you buy.
  • Spread peanut butter on toast, crackers, sandwiches or fruit like apples or bananas for a snack.
  • Lightly toast nuts or seeds and add them to a salad for extra crunch and flavour. Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, peanuts and almonds all work well.
  • Add nuts and seeds to a stir-fry or pasta dish. Cashews, peanuts and sesame seeds work well in stir-fries and pine nuts and walnuts work well in pasta dishes.
  • Add a handful of nuts, seeds or a tablespoon of peanut butter to smoothies, homemade muesli or sprinkled on top of porridge.
  • Use peanut butter or tahini to make sauces like satay, dips or salad dressings.
  • Use nuts and seeds in baking i.e. bliss balls, homemade muesli bars, bread, muffins.

Here are more ideas to help you eat more seeds.

Porridge in a white bowl with bananas, blueberries and chia seeds on top.

Use some of our heart-healthy recipes featuring nuts and seeds to get you started:

Meals

Sauces, spreads and toppings

Breakfast ideas

Snacks

What does the Heart Foundation recommend?

The recommendations around nuts and seeds are to be included within the context of an overall heart-healthy dietary pattern.

The Heart Foundation’s dietary pattern for heart health includes:

  1. eating more vegetables and fruit
  2. swapping from refined cereals and grains to whole grains
  3. choosing reduced-fat varieties of dairy products
  4. eating healthy fats sourced from nuts, seeds, plant oils (other than coconut and palm), avocado, and oily fish in place of animal fats
  5. focusing on reducing unprocessed red meat to <350g/week (cooked) spread across 3 meals per week (with an individual portion size of 100g cooked red meat)
  6. swapping some red meat meals for plant proteins such as soy, legumes and nuts
  7. limiting, or avoiding processed red meat
  8. reducing highly processed and refined foods such as junk food, takeaways, deep-fried foods, pastries, pies, sweet bakery items, lollies, processed snack foods and sugary drinks.

 

Nuts and seeds position statement Eating for a healthy heart

References

  1. Ros E (2010). Health benefits of nut consumption. Nutrients. 2(7):652-82.
  2. New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited, Ministry of Health (2018). New Zealand Food Composition Database. Auckland, Wellington.
  3. Ros E (2009). Nuts and novel biomarkers of cardiovascular disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89(5):1649S-56S.
  4. Bolling BW et al (2010). The phytochemical composition and antioxidant actions of tree nuts. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 19(1):117-23.
  5. Alasalvar C et al (2021). Specialty seeds: Nutrients, bioactives, bioavailability, and health benefits: A comprehensive review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 20(3):2382-427.
  6. Nishi et al (2021). Are fatty nuts a weighty concern? A systematic review and meta-analysis and dose-response meta-regression of prospective cohorts and randomized controlled trials. Obes Rev. 22(11):e13330.
  7. Fernández-Rodríguez R et al (2021). The Relationship of Tree Nuts and Peanuts with Adiposity Parameters: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 13(7).
  8. Guarneiri LL et al (2021). Intake of Nuts or Nut Products Does Not Lead to Weight Gain, Independent of Dietary Substitution Instructions: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Trials. Advances in Nutrition. 12(2):384-401.