The overall health benefits of almonds have been known for years but a new study, and the first of its kind, takes a closer look at how these particular nuts affect the digestive health and immune function specifically in children. “What’s really new is that [the study] really shows the impact of the new food to the children’s diet and its quality,” Alyssa Burns, a doctoral student at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, says.
The bottom line is that if you add a total of between 0.5 ounces (for kids) and 1.5 ounces (for adults) of almonds in anything you eat throughout the day you are doing a tremendous favor to your overall diet quality and gut microbiota, which in turn may impact the immune system and general health.
Eating only a handful of almonds resulted in measurable changes in gut microbiota, which may have a variety of health benefits. “The 'healthy' intestinal bacteria, such as lactic acid and bifidobacteria, are thought to help maintain a strong intestinal barrier so you don’t get pathogenic bacteria in,” Dr. Bobbi Langkamp-Henken, a professor at the University of Florida and co-author of the study, says. “If they do cross the intestinal barrier, they set up an inflammatory state that may lead to chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes.”
Researchers did a clinical study in which they recorded 29 healthy parent and child pairs for 14 weeks. The majority of the parents were mothers who were overweight and an average of 35 years old. The children were 15 boys and 14 girls who were an average of 4 years old. Parents and children ate 1.5 and 0.5 ounces of almonds and/or almond butter, respectively, on a daily basis for three weeks, as part of their usual diet, followed by a 6-week washout period and another 3-week period of following the usual diet with no almonds.
The results were impressive. When parents and children ate almonds, their overall diet quality improved, as measured by increased Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores, a standard measure of compliance to recommended dietary guidelines. While at the beginning of the study, HEI scores for parents and children fell below U.S. national averages – 57.4 for adults 31-50 years and 54.9 for children 4-8 years – eating almonds boosted their scores to 61.4.
Moreover, the parents and kids also significantly more vitamin E and magnesium, which are two nutrients usually under-consumed by many. HEI component scores increased for fatty acids (healthy fats), total protein, seafood and plant protein and decreased for fruit and empty calories.
Consider almonds a perfect snack and stop wondering what to eat to curb your appetite so you don’t overeat at dinner. Almonds have a unique nutrient package: 160 calories with 6 grams of plant based protein, 4 grams of filling dietary fiber, 13 grams of "good" unsaturated fats and important vitamins and minerals including vitamin E (35 percent of the recommended daily value ), magnesium (20 percent of DV) and potassium (6 percent of DV).
People who don’t like almonds can relax – you don’t have to eat them separately to benefit. You can choose almond butter instead of crush them in a smoothie, which is what some of the parents in the study did, Burns says. “Almonds are new to a kid’s diet so some parents added them in oatmeal or used almond butter in place of peanut butter in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Almond butter and bananas or almonds with chocolate pieces were also ways parents incorporated the almonds into their children’s diet,” she adds.
In fact, Dr. Langkamp-Henken says, some of the fermentable fiber is more available if the almonds are crushed. Almond milk, however, is not as good of a replacement because it doesn’t have enough fiber to change the microbiota.
One thing that did not change as a result of eating the almonds was immune function. Burns and Dr. Langkamp-Henken say that’s possibly because more time is necessary to have a significant effect on immune system. Also, the participants in the study were healthy and active individuals. “So you don’t expect huge changes,” Dr. Langkamp-Henken said.
A limitation of the study is that nutrient intake was assessed using self-reported dietary recall data. As most children attended school or daycare, it may have been difficult for parents to determine foods eaten away from home.
If 1.5 ounces of almonds a day is enough to improve a person’s overall health, then how much is too much? “As long as you are still eating a variety of foods that provide other necessary nutrients, then eating more almonds won’t have a bad effect,”Dr. Langkamp-Henken says. Nuts are just one part of an overall healthy eating pattern.