Misconception about a handful nuts

Meyken Houppermans, PhD. CrossFit Level 3 Trainer.
Founder and Head Coach
Just because the Dutch Health Council recommends 1 handful of nuts per day, does not mean it is always a good idea, in your situation, considering your goal. Besides, what is a handful?

The recommendation

The Dutch Health Council recommends eating 1 handful of nuts per day. This recommendation is based on extensive scientific research demonstrating that a plant-based diet with vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole wheat  products and plant-based fats has a protective effect on chronic diseases  such as cancer, obesity and heart failure. An animal-based diet with red and  processed meat correlates with a higher risk of chronic diseases. (How bad is eating meat?)

Positive effects of nuts

Eating a handful of unsalted unroasted nuts per day decreases the risk of coronary heart diseases. For high risk patients it can have a protective effect on cardiovascular diseases. The assumption behind this is that the unsaturated fat in nuts lowers the LDL cholesterol in our body (the bad cholesterol). But possibly also other, not yet fully scientifically discovered, components of nuts contribute to this positive effect.

Furthermore, eating a handful of unsalted nuts per day increases the intake of important vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron, vitamin E and B1. Potassium contributes to the regulation of our blood pressure. Iron is needed for oxygen transport, energy supply and our immune system. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and helps to regulate cell metabolism. And vitamin B1 is essential for energy supply, our heart and nervous system.[1]

Negative effects of nuts

Just because the Dutch Health Council recommends eating a handful of nuts per day, does not mean it is always a good idea for you, in your situation, considering your goal. For example, if you want to lose weight or if you assume you can increase your protein intake with nuts, eating nuts daily is not perse the way to go.

1. High in calories and attractiveness

A handful of nuts contain about 160 kcal. That equals 1,5 banana or 2 slices of whole wheat bread. You will probably feel more satiated for longer with the latter, and therefor less tempted to have the next meal soon after. Futhermore eating a handful of nuts is easily done without being very conscious of the intake, compared to eating two slices of bread. Additionally, 160 kcal also equals running for 30 minutes. A lot if you want to lose weight.

Many people probably rather eat a handful of nuts than two slices of whole wheat bread. Nuts are tastier, sometimes easier to eat on the go, and they don’t need any preparation compared to bread. Thanks to the Dutch Health Council nuts and their healthy image entered the spotlights, making them more attractive and reasonable to eat. On the other hand, it is also food that gets eaten in too large amounts too easy. And, many people do not know what a handful exactly is. It’s only 25 grams.

2. Low in protein

Nuts are not high in protein, but high in fat. A handful of nuts contains only 5,4 grams of protein and 14 grams of fat. If you want to replace animal for a plant-based protein, nuts aren’t always the best option. (Animal or plant based protein?)

Misconception about the handful of nuts

Would it make sense to advice a person who is recovering from a broken leg to walk 10.000 steps per day, just because this is the recommended daily activity level accoding the World Health Organization? Probably not.

Recommendations apply to the average adult population with the goal of maintaining public health and preventing diseases. That does not mean recommendations are y suitable for every individual, in every situation, every single time. The same applies to the recommendation of the handful of nuts.

Furthermore,  the assumption of Good input -> Good output, (eat nuts, get healthy) does not apply that simple to lifestyle related recommendations. Eating a handful of nuts will not make you healthier. Going to the gym everey day also does not make you an Olympic athlete. Health improves by what you do on a daily base, 365 days per year, in all aspects of your lifestyle.

Concluding advice

A wholesome diet contains all food groups with lots of colorful vegetables, some fruits, whole grain products, some lean animal- and or plant based protein and unsaturated fats, all in moderation. A wholesome diet provides the body all the vitamins and minerals it need. Eat regularly, with a lot of variety, and not too much.

Because it is not yet fully known what components in nuts have positive health effects , nuts cannot be replaced one-to-one by other products. Unsaturated fat seems to play an important role. Other sources are fatty fish, avocado and plant based oils. But even too much of a good thing, can still be too much.

Think about what YOU need in YOUR situation, to reach YOUR goals. Do not blindly follow general recommendations, trends or what people around you are doing (Are you on a popular diet too?) whatever people around you are doing. What works for them doesn’t necessarily work for you (Why your friend loses weight but you dont!). Find out what you need and what works for you, get informed by evidence based facts and seek professional  advice for extra guidance on how to improve your health. !

Create your own health!©


[1] Gezondheidsraad. Achtergrond bij richtlijnen goede voeding 2015.