Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That!

There are two potential problems with snacks. First, eating snacks often lengthens the eating window each day, leaving less total time fasting within a 24-hour period. Second, typical snack food is not very healthy. This emphatically includes most snacks that advertise how healthy they are. Bee Wilson, in the June 9, 2018 Wall Street Journal article you can see above gives energy bars as an example: 

From 2002 to 2012, the U.S. market for snack bars more than doubled, to $6 billion, according to Rabobank. This is still relatively small compared with the $34 billion market for savory snack foods such as potato chips and pretzels, but the healthy bar market is growing much faster than other packaged snacks, despite the fact that the bars are not cheap. There are now more than 4,000 varieties of healthy “bar” on the market in the U.S., representing more than 400 brands. KIND alone, according to the company, offers 79 separate varieties.

I can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly delusional about the idea of the healthy snack. We want to eat but simultaneously give ourselves the impression that we are not really eating. Yet many supposedly sugar-free snacks, such as energy balls, are just as high in sugar as a candy bar, once you allow for the natural fruit sugars in the dried fruits.

There are two ways you can verify the problem with energy bars. First, you can look on the package at the number of grams of carbs and the number of grams of sugar.

Second, notice how soon you get hungry again after eating an energy bar. As my former colleagues at the University of Michigan can attest, I used to eat Zone bars routinely at work, including during faculty meetings and seminars. They were certainly convenient, but I was repeatedly surprised by how soon I got hungry again—a sign of how highcarb they were, despite advertising how high they were in protein and fat. 

Fortunately, there is a highly portable snack just as convenient as energy bars, but genuinely healthy. That snack is nuts, and they are crazy-good for you.  Below is a picture of the different types of nuts I eat almost every day: pistachios, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, brazil nuts and macadamia nuts. (They are in front of a SodaStream machine that makes another treat in a cost-effective way: fizzy water.) I would add walnuts and pecans to give myself even more variety if I weren't mildly allergic to walnuts and pecans. Peanuts are also healthy, and I don't have any peanut allergies, but I prefer these other kinds of nuts.  

Photo by Miles Spencer Kimball. I hereby give permission to use this image for anything whatsoever, as long as that use includes a link to this post.

Photo by Miles Spencer Kimball. I hereby give permission to use this image for anything whatsoever, as long as that use includes a link to this post.

Any of these kinds of nuts are easy to put in a ziploc bag and take with you when you are on the go. At home, I eat them while I am making my giant salad. 

Most people like nuts. But nuts taste even better once you have gone off sugar. To me nuts taste somewhat sweet. Here is a tip for making almonds and cashews taste even better: bake them. Here is the recipe that I use:

  • Take top rack out of oven

  • Press convection oven, choose 325 degrees (300 degrees if you don't have a convection oven)

  • Put one sheet of tinfoil on each large flat pan.

  • Sprinkle almonds and cashews on each pan. Make sure they're not double thick (one level of nuts on each pan).

  • Set timer for 23 minutes. Don't overbake. Air should smell like toasty nutty goodness.

I usually mass-produce four cookie sheets worth at once. 

When buying nuts, it is important to check the package to make sure they don't have any added sugar. We get the pistachios, macadamias, cashews and almonds at Costco, but have to make sure to choose the versions without added sugar. (Currently, the versions without added sugar or sugary fruit all have only one type of nut in the container.) Personally, I am not very worried about salt. (See "Salt Is Not the Nutritional Evil It Is Made Out to Be" and "Confirmation Bias in the Interpretation of New Evidence on Salt.") So we buy the Costco salted pistachios, though to my taste I would prefer pistachios that are less salty. The macadamia nuts are also salted. That I like: to me salted macadamia nuts taste a lot better than unsalted macadamia nuts. Macadamia nuts are not always stocked at Costco, so we buy a lot when they are in stock. 

The brazil nuts and hazelnuts I end up buying at Whole Foods. I learned at Whole Foods that hazelnuts are considered a seasonal offering they only actively stock in November and December. But since I only eat a few hazelnuts a day, it is easy to buy enough hazelnuts to last a whole year. I also only eat a few brazil nuts a day, so neither the brazil nuts nor hazelnuts end up being too expensive. 

Besides regularly eating nuts at home and at work, there is one other situation where I find nuts extremely helpful. I don't eat meat very often at home. You can see part of the reason in:

However, I do eat meat at restaurants. Many types of meat have a medium-high insulin index. (See "Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.") As a result of the moderate insulin spike after eating meat, I often get a little hungry after a restaurant meal. So I often eat some nuts after a restaurant meal so I will feel satisfied.  

For those who have not yet managed to fully go off sugar, I recommend carrying some nuts with you to eat if you face a temptation to eat sugar. It is hard to beat something tempting with nothing. So don't put yourself in that situation if the temptation is serious; beat sugar with nuts. 

Also, to help you fight the temptations of snacks that claim to be healthy but aren't, read "The Problem with Processed Food." And despite all of its flaws (see my posts "The Case Against Sugar: Stephan Guyenet vs. Gary Taubes" and "The Case Against the Case Against Sugar: Seth Yoder vs. Gary Taubes") you might find The Case Against Sugar a somewhat inaccurate, but still inspirational book. 

Nuts aren't the only healthy treat. I have written about other treats in "Intense Dark Chocolate: A Review" and "Which Is Worse for You: Sugar or Fat?" But nuts are the most versatile snack in being able to fulfill all of the key roles people need snacks for. 

There is one role you shouldn't fill with any snacks, even snacks as healthy as nuts. Don't eat around the clock from the time you get up until the time you go to sleep. Time off from eating each day is important for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. On that, see "Stop Counting Calories; It's the Clock that Counts" and "Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon." But as long as you eat nuts within your eating window, and when you are genuinely hungry, it is hard to go wrong with them. 

Update August 22, 2018: I am currently reading Steven Gundry's book The Plant Paradox. So far, I am impressed. He argues that peanuts and cashews (technically legumes and drupes respectively, not nuts) are unhealthy because they contain a lot of lectins (natural insecticides that plants produce) that humans are ill-adapted to detoxify because they were plants from the Americas. Even those of Native American descent have had at most about 14,000 years for evolution to develop defenses against these particular lectins. For the rest of us, it is only 526 years since Columbus. And it is a lot more complex to evolve defenses against particular lectins than, say, the extension of the ability to digest milk into adulthood.

I was never a big fan of peanuts, so avoiding them is no change for me, but currently I have cut out cashews. Also, based on Steven Gundry's advice, I am currently switching to blanched (deskinned) Marcona almonds and shifting away from almond milk toward coconut milk. (I was annoyed to find that Costco's Marcona almonds are roasted in peanut oil, which means I have to get my Marcona almonds online.) 


Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Other Health Issues

VII. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography. I defend the ability of economists like me to make a contribution to understanding diet and health in “On the Epistemology of Diet and Health: Miles Refuses to `Stay in His Lane’.”