For people with nut allergies, it’s important to see an allergist to learn more about the specifics of your allergy and whether there are any nuts you might be eating. If you absolutely cannot eat peanuts or any type of nut, alternative foods can add some of the protein, healthy fats, nutrients, and satiety that nuts contribute to a diet.
The research supporting nuts as an important part of the daily diet is strong. In a multicenter study in Spain, researchers assigned nearly 7,500 people at high risk of cardiovascular disease to a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts.
After about five years of follow-up, the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the risk of a major cardiac event by about 30% compared to the control group. Other benefits were seen in those who ate healthy sources of fat (olive oil or nuts), including a lower risk of dementia, diabetes and breast cancer.
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Learn more about your tree nut allergy
Nut allergy is one of the most common food allergies, affecting approximately 0.5 to 1 percent of the US population, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI). Nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. Peanuts are actually a legume, but although they are botanically different from tree nuts, they are similar when it comes to health outcomes.
People with a nut allergy are often allergic to more than one type of nut, but an allergy to one type of nut or to peanuts does not necessarily mean that a person is allergic to all other nuts.
If you are one of those who have been told they cannot eat nuts, I would advise you to do some additional specific testing. Tree nut allergy is often diagnosed in childhood and persists into adulthood, but an estimated 10% of children outgrow it over time, according to the AAAAI.
And some people are very allergic to peanuts but not tree nuts, and vice versa, but may not recognize it. Don’t risk experimenting on your own. It is essential to have close medical advice.
If you find out that your nut allergy is limited and that you can safely eat certain nuts, that’s good news. The most common nuts, as well as peanuts, have a similar composition and are good sources of protein, healthy fats, fiber and many other phytochemicals.
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Try the seeds if you are allergic to nuts
For those who know they absolutely can’t eat peanuts or tree nuts, seeds are a great alternative. Seeds are packets of nutrients that grow a young plant, and those same nutrients are good for humans, too.
We classify the seeds somewhat arbitrarily; many of the plants we eat are technically seeds, such as grains, legumes, beans, and nuts. But when we talk about seeds, we are talking about pumpkin, sunflower, chia, poppy, sesame and other seeds. According to the AAAAI, people with a nut allergy can generally tolerate the seeds, as well as macadamia nuts and pine nuts, which are also seeds.
We don’t have enough consumption of these seeds in our population to have a good sustained look at the long-term health effects. But, based on the composition and function of the seeds, one would expect benefits similar to those of the nuts. The seeds are high in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and fiber, and they contain a good mix of vitamins and minerals.
Sunflower seed butter has a remarkably similar flavor to peanut butter or other nut butters. Check the label to find one that has no added sugar. Adding seed butters to your diet is a fairly easy change someone with a nut allergy can make to get the extra protein, healthy fats, and nutrients they’re missing out on by not eating nuts.
Whether you can eat nuts or are limited to seeds, you shouldn’t think of these great foods as snacks. In the morning I usually have steel cut oats or nut yogurt. Nuts or seeds can be part of a salad for lunch and replace cheese and animal products in our meals. In a recipe for stuffed peppers, nuts and seeds can even be used as a substitute for ground beef.
As a snack or to sprinkle in salads, dried chickpeas can be a crunchy alternative to nuts. Dried chickpeas are a legume and tend to be more starchy than most nuts. It’s not a perfect alternative, but as part of the mix, they might be a good thing to try.
For another snack alternative, my two go-tos are apples and carrots. They are high in fiber and nutrients, induce satiety and provide only a modest number of calories.
When I was writing the first edition of my book on nutritional epidemiology, I spent long hours writing and put on about five books. For the second edition, I didn’t want to start over and I made sure to have plenty of carrots or apples to snack on. It worked.
Many people snack on dried fruit, but it doesn’t induce satiety as well as other foods. And dentists hate dried fruit because it’s sticky and keeps the sugar in contact with the teeth.
It is important to note that no food should be completely prohibited. It’s okay to have a favorite but less healthy food once in a while. But for everyday on-the-go snacks, it helps to declare to yourself what your snacks are and consciously have them available.
Walter Willett is a physician and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
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