By Markita Lewis, MS, RD
Markita is a clinical dietitian with a passion for the biological, social, and cultural aspects of eating. She enjoys writing about nutrition and wellness, food justice and policy, cultural foodways, and the psychology of nutrition.
Almonds have long been known as a healthy food that provides a variety of essential nutrients. Recently, almonds have become more popular as a high quality protein source as people are incorporating more plant-based foods and dairy alternatives into their lifestyles. Almonds are everywhere, from almond milk, to almond oil, to almond butter, yet many people don’t know what exactly makes almonds so great for a healthy diet.
What’s Inside an Almond?
A 1-ounce serving of almonds provides 170 calories, 5.9g of protein, 14.9g of fat (mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acid), and 3g of fiber. While these nuts may be a little calories dense due to their beneficial healthy fat content, they are nutrient dense because they are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Almonds also provide excellent amounts of vitamin E, riboflavin, and magnesium, and are a good source of additional nutrients including iron, phosphorus, potassium, folate, manganese, and copper.
Because almonds are so nutrient dense, they are helpful in improving diet quality. In a study published in 2016, pairs of adults and their children added almonds into the diet (1.5oz of almonds for adults and 0.5oz of almonds for child) for three weeks to see the impact on diet quality and gut microbiota. At the end of the study, researchers found that diet quality significantly improved for both parents and children compared to a diet without almonds.
Health Benefits of Almonds
For decades, research has shown that consuming almonds is associated with many therapeutic and protective health benefits. These results have been consistent over time, even with varying almond consumption from 0.5 oz to 2 oz or more daily.
Almonds are beneficial for preventing cardiovascular diseases. Studies show that eating almonds can reduce LDL levels, the “bad” cholesterol, and help maintain HDL cholesterol levels, otherwise known as the “good” cholesterol. In a review published in Advances in Nutrition, eating 1.5 oz of almonds was also associated with decreases in diastolic blood pressure and BMI, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
For individuals with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, consuming almonds may improve fasting blood sugar level and reduce insulin resistance. In a study published in 2011, researchers compared the health effects of a standard low-fat, low cholesterol diet to a diet with 2 oz of almonds daily in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Those who ate the almond-rich diet were found to have lower fasting insulin, lower fasting glucose, and improvements in insulin resistance while also having improvements in cholesterol level.
Almonds contain several antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory components, which could be helpful in combating oxidative stress on the body. The monounsaturated fat in almonds plays a big role in their antioxidant capacity, but the magnesium and phytochemicals also lend a hand in improving inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can lead to the development of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, autoimmune conditions, and even cancer. A balanced diet with antioxidant-containing foods like almonds may improve immunity and reduce inflammation, lowering the risk of these conditions.
The gut may also see benefits from regular almond consumption. Almonds contain prebiotics, which are a type of dietary fiber that we cannot digest, but are used by the different bacteria within our gut.
In a study of college freshmen comparing the diversity of the gut microbiome (bacteria) after eating almonds or a snack of graham crackers, researchers found that almonds increased bacterial diversity and reduced potentially harmful bacteria in the gut. These results are important because increased diversity is associated with less weight gain as well as being protective for metabolic and cardiovascular health.
Almonds and Allergic Reactions
When introducing new foods and formula to infants and toddlers, parents are often concerned about the possibility of life-threatening allergic reactions. The eight major food allergens listed by the FDA include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
Together, these foods account for about 90 percent of food-related allergic reactions. Food products made with these ingredients are required by law by the FDA to be clearly labeled in the ingredient list or after the ingredient list.
Though geographic differences exist in tree nut allergies prevalence worldwide, tree nut allergies are rare and occur among 0.2% of children in the US. Despite being the third most common tree nut allergy in the United States (after walnuts and cashews), almond allergies are overall rare among children.
In comparison, cow’s milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies in early life. Cow’s milk allergy was reported among 1.9% of children, a rate nearly 10 times higher than tree nut allergies. In children under five years of age with food allergies, cow’s milk allergy was found in 53% of infants.
Soy allergy, though not as prevalent as cow’s milk protein, may occur in up to 1.5% of children at 1 year and decrease over time, according to US NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) 2007-2010 data.
Most commercial infant and toddler formulas contain cow’s milk protein or soy protein, which can limit options for providing the nutrition that are needed for growth. Almond protein-based formula can be a well-tolerated alternative for infants and toddlers with existing soy and dairy allergies.
Concerns over Introducing an Allergenic Food
Recent research suggests that early introduction of allergenic foods may decrease their risk of developing food allergies. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released guidelines for preventing childhood food allergies and other allergic conditions, recommending introduction of allergenic foods as early as 4 to 6 months of age.
The advisory committee for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans has also adopted this position, finding no evidence that avoiding allergenic foods in early life is beneficial to preventing allergies. While tree nuts and peanuts may be banned in some schools and daycares, introducing these foods at home may be helpful in preventing food allergies.
Overall, almonds are a great food to introduce into the diet starting at a young age. The health benefits of almonds are widespread and can protect against developing chronic illnesses. Almonds are also delicious and can be included into a variety of meals and snacks as part of a healthy lifestyle! Whether you prefer shelled almonds or toasted almonds, almond flour or almond meal, or store-bought or homemade almond milk, there’s plenty of ways to incorporate these nutrient dense nuts into your diet.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.