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Nuts & Seeds: Are They Really A Good Source Of Protein?

By Dennis Buckley

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Nuts come in all shapes and varieties (insert joke here) and are a great source of fat, essential trace vitamins and minerals, and fiber, but one thing they aren't is a great source of is protein.

Despite what you'll hear on the internet or what you'll see on label claims for your favorite trail mix or nut assortment, nuts just aren't an efficient protein source, rather they're just a category of food that just happens to have a little protein in it.

In this article you'll about the two main reasons why you should check your logic before reaching for that handful of almonds or spoonful of peanut butter, thinking you're making gains for the day in the protein department. 

Protein: A Genuine Superfood If There Ever Was One

These days, protein (bro-tein, for the bros) has graduated from the realm of the weight-lifting YOLOs in the gym to the health-conscious mainstream. 

Protein is indeed a buzzword, and in truth, this makes me glad.

Unlike vague and fluffy claims like "all-natural," "heart-healthy," or "organic," protein is quite simply a nutrient that just about everybody would benefit from eating a little more of. 

It's important in muscle building and exercise recovery. 

It's especially important as we age, since our ability to process dietary protein declines as we get older.

Not to mention, protein is a structural component of your cells – it forms hormones, enzymes, and allows cells throughout your body to communicate with each other. 

Protein comprises your hair, your nails, your hair, and your blood — the cells of which break down and rebuild themselves all day, every day.  Just like muscle tissue.

Protein is fantastic as a nutrient for so many reasons, and if you’re interested in increasing your protein intake, nuts aren't the optimal food to reach for for two main reasons.

Reason 1: Nuts Are Primarily Fat (Not Protein)

The most important thing to remember is this: nuts and seeds have protein in them, but that's probably not the reason you should be eating them.

Across the board, calorie for calorie, nuts and seeds are primarily fat.

Only secondary to that are they protein and carbohydrate (mostly in the form of fiber).

Nuts and Seeds

  • Almonds - 15% carbs, 13% protein, 72% fat
  • Cashews - 22% carbs, 11.5% protein, 66.5% fat
  • Peanut Butter - 13% carbs, 17% protein, 70% fat
  • Walnuts - 8.5% carbs, 8% protein, 83.5% fat
  • Pecans - 8% carbs, 5% protein, 87% fat
  • Flax seeds - 22% carbs, 12% protein, 66% fat
  • Pumpkin seeds - 13% carbs, 16% protein, 71% fat
  • Sesame seeds - 17% carbs, 11% protein, 72% fat
  • Sunflower seeds - 17% carbs, 11.5% protein, 71.5% fat

Let's say you wanted to eat 30 grams of protein as a mid-afternoon snack. 

One way to do that is with a protein shake

A standard scoop of 45 grams of whey protein contains approximately:

  • 150 calories
  • 30 grams of protein
  • 4 grams of carbohydrate
  • 2 grams of fat

 

Another way, opt for one, 150 gram chicken breast, which contains...

  • 30 grams of protein
  • 130 calories
  • 1 gram of fat

Lastly, you could go for the bag of almonds.

To reach 30 grams of protein from almonds, you would need to eat one cup (4 servings) of almonds which comes out to:

  • 830 calories
  • 30 grams of protein
  • 72 grams of fat
  • 31 grams of carbohydrate (18 grams of fiber)

To hit 30 grams of protein from almonds you'd have to eat over 800 calories, compared to something like a whey protein shake or some chicken, which both hover around 150 calories per serving.

From a calorie standpoint, nuts, seeds, and nut butters are incredibly calorie dense (about 9 calories per gram from fat versus 4 calories per gram from either protein or carbohydrate), which means the ratio of calories-to-protein is not exactly favorable.

Reason 2: Nuts Are Not A Complete Protein Source

If you're savvy about nutrition or have dabbled in veganism, you may be familiar with the concept of 'complimentary' proteins.

Proteins are comprised of individual amino acids -- the so-called 'building blocks' of larger protein molecules. There are 20 of them in all, but they can be further sub-categorized into either essential or non-essential amino acids.

Essential amino acids (there are 9 of them in all) are those that we have to get from our diet because we can't make them ourselves. In order for a protein to be considered "complete" it must contain all 9 essential amino acids.

They are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Valine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan

Rice and beans is the classic example of how two different foods with different amino acid profiles can have a "complimentary" effect and provide your body with all the essential amino acids it needs.

If your goals are dependent on eating enough protein, then you better have a calculator tethered to your waist (especially if you're interested in building muscle), or you would be wise to focus on eating complete proteins. 

Nuts, unfortunately, fall into the category of "incomplete protein".

How To Navigate Your Protein Choices

Gravitating towards both foods that are complete proteins, or foods that have a high protein content relative to fat and carbohydrate is a smart idea for a few reasons:

  • It will be easier to get enough protein without blowing your calories for the day (refer back to the whopping 800+ calorie bomb from almonds to get 30 grams of protein).
  • You won't have to wonder about the amino acid profiles of the foods you're eating (no guesswork).
  • Eating protein-rich foods has a variety of other benefits including increased thermogenesis, satiety, and maintenance of lean body mass (muscle, bone, ligaments -- all of it).

Complete protein sources include:

  • All meat products
  • Dairy
  • Quinoa
  • Eggs
  • Buckwheat
  • Hemp
  • Spirulina

When it comes to portable protein options for snacks on the go, these are some of the best convenient options:

  • Greek yoghurt
  • Jerky
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • "Junk-free" protein bars
  • Milk
  • Protein shakes
  • Lunch meat

INSIDER SECRET:

My intent in this article was not to bastardize nuts at all, just to point out that they shouldn't be viewed synonymously with protein. If anything, nuts are a great fat source. The good news is that If you're an avid nut butter enthusiast (which you should be) there are some companies that make nut butters that have been fortified with whey protein.

They cost a little more than your average jar of Skippy, but they manage to pack in about 10 - 15 grams of whey protein into each serving. 

The Botton Line on Nuts

The point to remember in this article is that not all proteins you find in food are created equal. If you're trying to maximize protein intake while keeping total daily calories in check, you would fare well focusing on complete sources of protein OR opting for incomplete sources of protein that are high in protein content.

If protein is what you're after, try and make sure the majority of the calories come from protein -- that's it.

Nuts are great, protein is excellent, do yourself a favor an make them both staples in your diet. 

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