New Study Demonstrates That Snack Swaps with Almonds Could Lead to Huge Nutrition Benefits
A new study that evaluated the potential effects of replacing typical snack foods with almonds and other tree nuts shows that this simple swap would decrease empty calories, solid fats, saturated fat and sodium in the diet, while increasing intake of key nutrients. The study, funded by the Almond Board of California and conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, was published in Nutrition Journal.
Using data of over 17,000 children and adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey* (NHANES; 2009-2012), the researchers applied food pattern modeling to assess the hypothetical impact of replacing all snack foods, excluding beverages, with tree nuts (model 1) and replacing all but “healthy” snack foods (whole grains, whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables) with tree nuts (model 2). Almonds are the most frequently consumed nut and in this study, 44% of all tree nuts eaten were almonds. Therefore, assessments using the NHANES data were repeated using almonds only. All reported snacks were replaced calorie-for-calorie with almonds or other tree nuts, reflecting typical American consumption patterns. The Healthy Eating Index 2010, which measured adherence to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, was used to assess diet quality.
Cookies and brownies, ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, cakes and pies, and candy containing chocolate were the predominant sources of snack calories under both models. Potato chips, pastries, popcorn, cheese, bread, apples, pretzels, bananas, cereal and cereal bars, yogurt and cold cuts each contributed more than 1% of snack calories.
In both models examined, where tree nuts hypothetically replaced all snack foods and where tree nuts hypothetically replaced only less-healthy snack foods, consumption of empty calories, solid fats, saturated fat, sodium, carbohydrates and added sugars all declined, while consumption of oils and good fats increased significantly. Fiber and magnesium also increased, while protein increased by a small margin. These findings were true for both almonds and for all tree nuts.
- By age group, decreases in empty calories, solid fats and added sugars were observed for all ages, though the nut substitution appeared most impactful for children ages 4-8 years and 9-13 year olds, since these groups were most likely to choose candy/confectionary as snacks.
- Whether all snacks or all snacks except for already healthy snacks were replaced with almonds and tree nuts, Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores increased, particularly important among children and adolescents who had lower HEI baseline values to start due to their lower quality snack choices.
This study demonstrates the potential benefits of replacing typically consumed American snacks with almonds and other tree nuts, and echoes findings from a similar NHANES analysis on almond eaters. This study, published in Food and Nutrition Sciences and also funded by the Almond Board, examined the characteristics of almond eaters and found that people who reported eating almonds had higher intake of key nutrients (such as dietary fiber, calcium, potassium and iron, as well as higher intakes of several other “shortfall nutrients” including vitamins A, D, E, and C; folate; and magnesium), better overall diet quality (measured by Healthy Eating Index scores), and lower body mass index and waist circumference compared to non-consumers. Almond consumers (defined as those eating about 1 ounce (28g) per day) tended to be more physically active and less likely to smoke than their non-almond eating counterparts, suggesting that including almonds as a regular part of the diet is associated with a portfolio of healthy lifestyle attributes.
The nutrient profile of almonds – low on the glycemic index and providing a powerful nutrient package including hunger-fighting protein (6 g/oz serving), filling dietary fiber (4 g/oz serving), “good” monounsaturated fats (9g/oz serving), and important vitamins and minerals such as alpha tocopherol vitamin E (7.3 mg/oz serving), magnesium (76 mg/oz serving) and potassium (210 mg/oz serving), makes them a satisfying snack choice and ideal fit for healthy diets. And, as this new study shows, the simple swap of replacing typical snack foods with almonds has the potential to improve nutrient intakes and result in overall healthier eating patterns.
U.S. - Epidemiological Study; review of U.S. NHANES (National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey) data
Children over 1 year and adults (n =17,444) from across the United States who participated in NHANES from 2009-2012.
- All reported snacks eaten between meals were replaced calorie-for-calorie with a weighted tree nut composite, reflecting typical consumption patterns.
- The tree nut composite took into account the relative frequency of tree nut consumption, with almonds making up 44% of the total tree nut intake. Walnuts, pecans, cashews and pistachios made up 20.8%, 8.8%, 7.6% and 6.9%, respectively.
- Model 1 looked at the impact of replacing all snacks (except beverages) with tree nuts and was repeated with almonds only. Model 2 assessed the effects of replacing all but “healthy” snacks (including whole fruits, non-starchy vegetables and whole grains) with tree nuts and was repeated with almonds only.
- The Healthy Eating Index-2010 (which measures adherence to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) was used as a measure of diet quality. (A version of the HEI for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines is not yet available, but differences between foods and nutrients to encourage are minimal).
- The study is epidemiological in nature and therefore cannot be used to determine cause and effect.
- The study relied on self-reported dietary intake collected during 24-h dietary recalls.
Tree Nut Data
- Cookies and brownies, ice cream and frozen dairy desserts, cakes and pies, and candy containing chocolate were the predominant sources of snack calories under both models. Potato chips, pastries, popcorn, cheese, bread, apples, pretzels, bananas, cereal and cereal bars, yogurt and cold cuts all contributed more than 1% of snack calories.
- Under Model 1 (where tree nuts hypothetically replaced all snack foods) and Model 2 (where tree nuts hypothetically replaced only less-healthy snack foods), empty calories declined by 20.1% and 18.7%, solid fats by 21.0% and 19.3%, saturated fats by 6.6% and 7.1% and added sugars by 17.8% and 16.9%. Consumption of oils (+65.3% and 55.2%), polyunsaturated fats (+42.0% and 35.7%), alpha-linolenic acid (+53.1% and 44.7%) and monounsaturated fats (+35.4% and 29.6%) increased significantly. Total fat intake increased under both Model 1 and 2 (+20.5% vs. +16.8%), however, the proportion of mono- and polyunsaturated to saturated fat was greatly improved. Consumption of carbohydrates fell significantly (-13% vs. -10%) and protein increased by a small margin (+2.6% vs. +1.7%). Sodium consumption also dropped by 12.3% and 11.2%, fiber increased by 11.1% and 14.8% and magnesium increased by 29.9% and 27.0%, respectively.
- The percent of the population meeting sodium (<2300 mg/day) and dietary fiber (>25 g/day) recommendations improved. For sodium, the percent meeting recommendations nearly doubled from 11.7% (observed) to 21.6 and 20.4% in Models 1 and 2. For dietary fiber, the percent meeting recommendations increased from 10.7% to 15.9% and 18.8%, respectively.
- Looking at the data by age group, decreases in consumption of empty calories, solid fats and added sugars were observed for all groups, though the nut substitution appeared most impactful for children 4-8y and 9-13y since these groups were most likely to choose candy/confectionary as snacks.
- The mean Healthy Eating Index (HEI) score was 58.5. Both models resulted in higher HEI scores: 67.8 for Model 1 and 69.7 for Model 2 (which speaks to the importance of dietary variety). HEI scores were higher in both models for all age groups, but was particularly important among children and adolescents due to low HEI baseline values and lower quality snacks.
- Results were similar when the same analyses were done using almonds only as the substitution.
- The similarity in results was to be expected since almonds represented 44% of tree nuts consumed, and thus were weighted as 44% of the composite tree nut data used for the all-nut modeling analyses.
Replacing between-meal snacks with tree nuts or almonds led to more nutrient-rich diets that were lower
in empty calories and sodium and had more favorable fatty acid profiles. Food pattern modeling using NHANES data can be used to assess the likely nutritional impact of dietary guidance.
 Rehm CD and Drewnowski A. Replacing American snacks with tree nuts increases consumption of key nutrients among US children and adults: results of an NHANES modeling study. Nutrition Journal. 2017; 16(1):17. doi: 10.1186/s12937-017-0238-5.
 O’Neil CE, Nicklas TA, Fulgoni III VL. Almond Consumption Is Associated with Better Nutrient Intake, Nutrient Adequacy, and Diet Quality in Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2010. Food and Nutrition Sciences 2016; 7:504-515.