A Handful of Nuts

I already had this post drafted before I wrote Monday's Perfection is a Myth, and as a result, this seemed even more timely. 

Eating nuts can be a challenge when following low-carb.

It's very easy for most people to overeat nuts (myself included), and we justify it by saying,

"I'm just going to grab a handful,"

but then we don't stop at just one. 

How many carbs are actually in a handful of nuts? There's not an exact science, because every hand is different, every handful can vary, and every variety of nut is different, but here is my take on it: 

CHART Description:

  • The vertical axis is grams of weight overall.

  • The darker bar for each type of nut/seed represents the control group; the weight of each type of nut/seed needed to equal 5 grams of carbohydrates.

  • The medium gray bar in each category is the average weight of nuts I can hold in a an almost-closed hand, which is pictured above (based on the average weight of 5 tries).

  • The lightest bar in each category is the average weight of nuts I can hold in a cupped, open hand (based on the average weight of 5 tries).

Thus, my handful of nuts. 

As you can see in nearly every category, there is substantial variation to all of the measurements. With some varieties of nuts, one open, cupped handful is consistently more than 5 grams of carbs (with the exception of peanuts and walnuts). 

The almost-closed handful is more consistent with the 5 gram amount, and occasionally below.

Sunflower kernels were the wild card here. They are so small and smooth, that they slide off of each other, making them difficult to hold and resulting in a lower weight per handful. I think most people would put these in a dish to eat and not just grab a handful of sunflower seed kernels. 

Science Warning: 

The reasons for the quantity difference between types of nuts is that weight (how heavy something is based on mass and gravity) and volume (the amount of space something takes) are completely different. 

Remember back to science class when they discussed mass, density and volume? 

The more irregular shape (like walnut halves) the more space (volume) it will take, and you will be able to hold less in your hand, as our results show. Other items like peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds can nest together more tightly with less air space between, and so you can hold more in your hand at once, but how our handful measurements compare to the 5 carb amount is determined by density of that volume, among other factors that we observed with sunflower seeds. 

(I'm sure you've seen the jar demonstration, adding large rocks, then small pebbles, sand and water all within the same volume? The smaller matter fills the voids between larger objects? Same concept here.) 

Does all this really matter, though? Should we even focus on volume? Is my handful of nuts completely meaningless? 

  • You can put 37 grams of walnut halves (which is 5 grams of carbs) into a 1/2 cup measuring cup, then add 30 grams of sunflower seed kernels into the same measuring cup, taking no more space, but adding substantially to the calorie count and doubling the carb count (similar to the rock/pebble/sand/water demonstration mentioned above).

  • Alternatively, you can crush 37 grams worth of walnut halves, taking the original 1/2 cup quantity and reducing it to 1/4 cup, but still maintaining the original calorie and carb count.

Volume, although convenient, is irrelevant in this case, and it's really the weight and type of nut that determines nutritional value. Plus, recipes and food logs are much more accurate when using weight measurements rather than volume for dry goods. 

Being from the USA, I tend to fall back on volume measurements and realize that the measurements on the diaVerge recipes are also volume-based. Time to re-think our standards and get with the rest of the metric world! 

So... based on the inconsistencies of hand size, cupped vs semi-closed hand, type of nut.... well whatever. 

The conclusion is that my handful of nuts is completely irrelevant and we should just stick to weight. It is infinitely more accurate. 

Until you're accustomed to standard serving sizes (measured by weight), and the corresponding carb values, we recommend that you always weigh your food using a kitchen scale, and consistently enter it into an online tracking program. We prefer MyNetDiary because every food item is listed in grams, but others may prefer SparkPeople, MyFitnessPal, etc. 

Please be honest with yourself and your food tracking. Studies have shown that people underestimate/under-record how much they eat by at least 20-30%

Then, pre-pack nuts into individual containers or snack bags, measuring 5 grams of carbs per snack (or less if you prefer). Here's our chart showing the average weight of nuts that is equal to 5 grams of carbs:

Write your standard bolus amount on the container if needed. Just don't forget to bolus for those ultra-tempting cashews, in particular. You can see from the chart that they are the highest carb nut listed.

(Remember, there are no freebies with Diabetes. Bolus for everything!!)

Don't be afraid of nuts, but measure accurately (don't just grab a handful), be conscientious of the quantities you are eating and the associated carb count, then bolus accordingly.