When you’re looking for a satisfying diabetes-friendly snack, it’s hard to beat nuts. “Nuts are a super snack food for people with diabetes because they’re the total package — low in carbs and high in protein, fiber, and healthy fat — and they create a feeling of fullness,” says Cheryl Mussatto, RD, founder of Eat Well to Be Well in Osage City, Kansas.
Nuts: A Good Choice for Diabetes and Your Heart
The healthy fat in nuts protects your ticker, says Melissa Joy Dobbins, RDN, CDCES, founder of Sound Bites. That’s important because people with type 2 diabetes are 2 to 4 times more likely to die of heart disease than those without it, according to the American Heart Association.
Heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts can lower your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, Mussatto says. “At the same time, nuts also raise levels of ‘good,’ or HDL, cholesterol,” she says. “This cholesterol acts sort of like a sanitation worker, removing cholesterol from the tissues for disposal, which prevents plaque buildup in the arteries.”
What’s more, nuts help regulate blood sugar, which makes them a better option to reach for than, say, pretzels, when afternoon hunger strikes, Mussatto says. Many kinds of nuts have this effect: Almonds have been shown to slow down the blood sugar response when eaten with carbohydrate-rich foods, according to a small past study that focused on healthy people without the disease. Another past study found similar results for pistachios when eaten by healthy volunteers. And a systematic review published in December 2017 in the journal Nutrients examining the health benefits of various kinds of nuts concluded that adding nuts improved diet quality, thanks to the protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they contain.
Why Portion Control Is Key When Eating Nuts
Though these results may seem like enough to secure superfood status for nuts, there’s one other thing to be aware of: Nuts are high in calories. While they are not typically associated with weight gain, as the 2017 study in Nutrients suggests, experts suggest measuring out 1-ounce portion sizes instead of digging into an open bag. If you overeat them, there is still a risk of weight gain.
Keep in mind that how nuts are prepared can influence how healthy they are. Avoid nuts that are coated in salt — Dobbins notes that sodium is bad for your blood pressure — and sugar. More bad news if you love the sweet-and-savory combo: Chocolate-covered peanuts and honey-roasted cashews are high in carbs and not the best choice when you have diabetes, Dobbins says. Instead, try dry-roasted or raw nuts, which are flavorful but still healthy.
As for which nut to choose, here are four of the best for people with diabetes, roughly ranked in order of healthiness:
Serving size: about 14 shelled halves
According to a small, randomized controlled study published in July 2017 in the journal Diabetes, Obesity, & Metabolism, walnuts may help promote feelings of fullness, preventing unhealthy food cravings and potentially aiding weight loss. Another past study of women drew a link between eating walnuts and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. “The fiber, the protein, and the good fats help manage hunger and blood sugars,” Dobbins says.
Walnuts are also a rich source of alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) and may help reduce inflammation, Mussatto says, making walnuts her absolute favorite nut to recommend. Inflammation is tied to diabetes, as well as other conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
Serving size: about 23 nuts
Almonds help control glucose levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease for people with type 2 diabetes, according to a small past study. Dobbins notes they are also a good source of fiber. “Fiber helps keep you full, keeps your blood sugars more stable, and is good for your digestion,” she adds.
One more reason almonds are superstars for people with diabetes: A 1-ounce (about 3 tbsp) serving offers 80 milligrams of magnesium, making it a good source, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes. That’s helpful, Mussatto says, because many people with diabetes are deficient in this mineral. Upping your magnesium intake can help promote healthy bones, normal blood pressure, blood glucose control, and good muscle and nerve function, according to the NIH.
Serving size: about 45 nuts
“Pistachios’ trio of fiber, protein, and good fats help keep you fuller longer, making them a smarter bet than carbohydrate-heavy snacks,” Dobbins says.
One past, small, randomized controlled crossover study found improved blood sugar in people with diabetes who eat pistachios as a snack, while the Cleveland Clinic notes that pistachios’ monounsaturated fat content helps lower LDL cholesterol.
Enjoy them as a standalone snack or build them into your meals. Dobbins suggests subbing them in for croutons on a salad, or using crushed pistachios instead of breadcrumbs on baked chicken or fish.
Serving size: about 28 peanuts
Peanuts are an extremely satiating, diabetes-friendly snack, thanks to their high fiber and protein content. Not only do they have a low glycemic load (a measure of how quickly a food tends to raise blood sugar), but they may help regulate blood sugar, according to one small pilot study published in the May–June 2019 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. The study found that adding two tablespoons of peanut butter to a meal helped to prevent post-meal blood sugar spikes (though it’s worth noting that this study involved only 16 participants and did not use a control group).
Peanuts may also be a boon to heart health, as one November 2017 investigation published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiovascular Disease found that nut consumption (including peanuts) was linked with a lower risk of developing heart disease. The British diabetes association Diabetes.co.uk points out that peanut consumption can effectively reduce LDL cholesterol.
Try adding a spoonful of low-sodium peanut butter to your morning oatmeal or smoothie, or toss a handful of peanuts into your next salad or stir fry.