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Testing the Fat Burning Theory

Finally there’s a solution to the mystery of why nuts don’t seem to make people gain weight. It appears to be a combination of factors including a boost to our metabolism, which results in us burning more of our own fat stores.

August 23, 2012 |
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Yes, when we eat nuts we might lose some fat in our feces and have our appetite suppressed, but studies suggest that this just accounts for about 70% of the disappeared calories in nuts. Unless all the calories are accounted for then there should still be weight gain after nut consumption, especially in the long term, but that’s not what the studies showed. So what happens to the last 30%?

Nuts appear to boost our metabolism, meaning when we eat nuts we burn more of our own fat to compensate. And indeed, in this study those on the control diet were burning about 20 grams of fat overnight within their bodies on average. Not bad, that’s like burning off 5 pats of butter. But the walnut group, eating the same number of calories the same amount of fat, same everything, burned more like 31 grams of fat a day—7 or 8 pats of butter worth. Not too shabby, or should I say, flabby.

So the hard to crack nut of a mystery appears to have been solved, of all the calories you eat in nuts, about 70% of them apparently disappear through dietary compensation mechanisms, 10% are flushed away, and 20% may be lost due to increased fat burn, leaving us with no calories to pack on any pounds; just a whopping load of nutrition and our risk of dying from heart disease cut in half.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Kerry Skinner.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

This is the fifth of a seven-part video series on the fascinating phenomenon of Solving the Mystery of the Missing Calories. In other words, why don't nuts make us fat? I review the balance of evidence in Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence and introduced two theories on Monday, both of which were not well supported by a study on peanut butter I detailed in Tuesday'sTesting the Pistachio Principle. Yesterday's video-of-the-day Testing the Dietary Compensation Theory described an elegant study using walnut smoothies that explained the appetite suppression piece. So if the mystery is now solved, what are the last two videos about? Well today we learned that nuts may boost fat burning in the body, but how? Maybe it's the arginine; maybe it's the flavonoids. Stay tuned! If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Nuts Don’t Cause Expected Weight GainBurning Fat With Flavonoids, and The Best Nutrition Bar

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    This is the fifth of a seven-part video series on the fascinating phenomenon of Solving the Mystery of the Missing Calories. In other words, why don’t nuts make us fat? I review the balance of evidence in Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence and introduced two theories on Monday, both of which were not well supported by a study on peanut butter I detailed in Tuesday’s Testing the Pistachio Principle. Yesterday’s video-of-the-day Testing the Dietary Compensation Theory described an elegant study using walnut smoothies that explained the appetite suppression piece. So if the mystery is now solved, what are the last two videos about? Well today we learned that nuts may boost fat burning in the body, but how? Maybe it’s the arginine; maybe it’s the flavonoids. Stay tuned! If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      You cracked the Thermogenic Nut Case!
      ;-}

  • Arteacher

    Your information seems to be well-researched and plausible. There was a message on VegSource earlier this week discussing recent findings funded by the nut industry that they considered to be bogus. Could these articles be one and the same? As a vegan, I think raw nuts are pretty important in the diet.

    • Jeff

       As a matter of fact, the two studies cited here were both sponsored by the tree nut industry, and one had additional support from Big Peanut.

  • rosebud

    Very impressive. Increased fat burn even on a meat eating diet by eating nuts. Risk of dying from heart disease cut in half. I suppose the amount of nuts was rationed to what is considered moderate consumption—an ounce or two? Wonder what happens if you increase nut consumption to four ounces or more?
    Can someone explain the numbers in parentheses after the nut, and why walnuts are not included in the “Fecal Loss” and “Increased Energy Expenditure” category?

    • Tom

      The graph shows results from other studies. Its numbers in parenthesis indicate which paper in the “Literature cited” section. The biggest bar at 100% or more is peanuts from paper number 17, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11033986. I could only find its abstract which doesn’t treat peanuts as having special compensation compared to almonds, chestnuts chocolate.

  • donmatesz

    The walnut study is stated in the title to be “calorie controlled” so no weight change is to be expected.  We are interested in whether adding nuts to a diet without any external control on caloric intake will cause weight gain.

    According to the walnut study (p. 614):

    “Despite the fact that the walnut group showed a
    significantly lower fat balance, both groups were in positive fat
    balance; this was likely due to a positive overall energy
    balance.”

    Positive fat balance means both groups were gaining body fat. This study thus did not show that eating walnuts caused a loss of body fat; the walnut group was just gaining body fat at a somewhat slower rate than the olive oil group.

    “During the 8-hour measurement period, no difference in energy expenditure was noted between the diets…”

    Thus, the walnut-enriched diet did not increase energy expenditure, at most they shifted metabolism from burning more carbohydrates to burning a little more fat, and that was established only for this one 8-hour period.

    To establish that the walnuts were the item responsible for the observed effect, the two diets would have to be identical except for one containing olive oil and the other walnuts.  In fact, according to table 1,  there were numerous differences between the two diets.

    The olive oil group is stated to have consumed margarine, milk, and cheese, whereas according to this table 1, the walnut diet did not include any margarine, milk, or cheese.  Therefore, it is possible that the reduced fat burning rate of the olive oil group was due to the presence of margarine, milk, or cheese, not to the absence of walnuts.  In other words, this study could be showing that margarine, milk, or
    cheese, or the combination thereof, suppresses fat burning, not that walnuts increase fat burning. 

    The text however says “Each diet contained vegetables,
    fruit, dairy foods, meat, and bread in forms that are readily
    available to consumers.”  If the text is correct, then both diets contained dairy foods, so we still have the difference of margarine, i.e. it is still possible that the margarine had some adverse effect on fat oxidation.

    The walnut diet included potato and beef which were not in the olive oil diet.  Therefore, another possibility is that either the potato or beef increased the fat metabolism, not the walnuts; or that it was some combination of potato, beef, and walnuts that increased fat metabolism (maybe potato and walnuts, or walnuts and beef, or potato and beef, or potato, walnut, and beef).

    Finally, even if the study had established that walnuts increased fat oxidation (which it did not due to multiple variables), we still could not generalize the findings to all nuts.  Since only walnuts were tested, it could be a characteristic only of walnuts, not also other tree nuts, let alone peanuts (actually legumes).

    • donmatesz

       It is also possible to interpret this study as providing possible evidence that olive oil, or some component thereof, or OO in combo with one or more of the other items found in the OO diet but not the walnut diet,  suppresses fat oxidation.  But really, there are just too many variables to clearly discern what was responsible for the observed difference in fat oxidation rate between the two diets.

    • donmatesz

       By the way, I don’t believe that beef (or any other animal flesh, secretion, or ovum) has any positive health efffects or increases fat metabolism, only that this study failed to eliminate this variable and thus leaves open the question as to which item actually accounts for the difference in fat oxidation rate between the two groups.

      • AlexanderBerenyi

         CLA, Carnitine, & Carnosine in beef, to name a few.

  • donmatesz

    The walnut study states “For example, growing
    evidence suggests that despite the fact that nuts are a high fat
    food, their incorporation into the diet does not appear to be
    associated with weight gain and they may even help with
    weight control.”  P. 614.

    The authors cite this study to support that statement: http://www.ajcn.org/content/89/6/1913.abstract

    Quoting that abstract:

    “Women who reported eating nuts ≥2 times/wk had slightly less mean (± SE) weight gain (5.04 ± 0.12 kg) than did women who
    rarely ate nuts (5.55 ± 0.04 kg) (P for
    trend < 0.001). For the same comparison, when total nut consumption
    was subdivided into peanuts and tree nuts, the results
    were similar (ie, less weight gain in women eating
    either peanuts or tree nuts ≥2 times/wk). The results were similar in
    normal-weight,
    overweight, and obese participants. In multivariate
    analyses in which lifestyle and other dietary factors were controlled
    for, we found that greater nut consumption (≥2
    times/wk compared with never/almost never) was associated with a
    slightly lower
    risk of obesity (hazard ratio: 0.77; 95% CI: 0.57,
    1.02; P for trend = 0.003)."

    So, the women who at nuts at least twice weekly had lessweight gain, not absence of weight gain.  In fact, quantified, the nut eaters gained 5 kg, compared to 5.55 kg for the women who rarely ate nuts.  Thus, the nut-enriched diet was associated with weight gain (specifically, a 5 kg / 11 pound weight gain) over the study period.

    This study does not support the idea that a nut-enriched diet “does not appear to be

    associated with weight gain,” only that nut eaters gain might gain about 10% less weight than those who abstain from nuts over time,  and were 23% less likely to be obese.  Notice that they didn’t say 23% less likely to be overweight, only 23% less likely to be obese, a very important distinction since one can be overweight but not obese.

    I really can’t accept this as evidence that nuts don’t promote weight gain.

    • R Ian Flett

      Well analysed donmatesz! Unfortunately, you have entered the Church of VeganISM, and all that ultimately matters is that the desired conclusion is often supported by any rationale ‘picked’ from 10,000 papers. Forget scientific method – it always runs secondary to the credo when seriously pushed. I might add that this is not uncommon in many other sciences.
      It’s really sad, because a diet heading in the general direction of vegan would dramatically improve the health of the general population – especially the regular consumption of nuts and much less red meat. In that sense Dr Greger is doing us all a big favour and in an entertaining way. However credibility is frequently lost along with the message (especially amongst those trained in scientific methodology) by having to force that extra Vegan step against absolutely anything animal sourced despite any real evidence of harm in some cases. MDs are very well trained in a partition of science, but are often poorly trained in basic scientific method as is often evidenced by some of the MD, disciples commenting here. I’m happy to listen to any real evidence that Veganism is the best diet available, and it may be, but it’s unhelpful and self negating if it’s too often crudely shoehorned into a preconceived ethical stance. I would strongly advise that each daily episode be vetted independently by someone such as ‘donmatesz’ above when the issue crosses Vegan ideological boundaries otherwise you will alienate many potentially influential supporters from your overall and laudible cause.

      • AlexanderBerenyi

         YES.

        • SJ M.D.

          AlexB – above is also for you!

      • SJ M.D.

        R Ian Flett (and AlexB), don`t get me wrong – this is truly not meant as an insult – but why are you watching videos here, and why are you reading the comment section? This site is for vegans or plantstrong people. We have an alleged vegan, who keeps arguing that eggs is a health food, and a clearly paleo fanatic. I´m sure that there are a lot of paleo sites and egg-sites, who would really appreciate your comments – please go there. You are both clearly without a sense of humour, and you both demand absolut proof for whatever is said here. I don`t know your backgrounds, but I don`t think it is scientific. Anybody who is dealing with health-science knows that to find ” the truth” is as good as impossible. I am sorry to say that there are a lot of evidence, that a well-planned vegan or near vegan diet is the best diet for humans. If you don`t agree – who cares – find another site to join. You can both for sure find some science stating the opposite – but we don`t care. And who cares about an occasional egg – that is not the point! And R Ian Flett, please eat as many eggs as you want. Most people watching this site is just looking for some vegan-support. All of us know that science is complicated, and that there are often contradictions. You don`t have to say it every time – everybody knows! It`s trivial. We have just made a choice. If you can`t choose, then don`t, but spare us from your boring negative attitudes. And come on R Ian Flett – calling supporters of the vegan/plantstrong lifestyle “disciples” is imbarrassing – for you. You seem too intelligent to make such low stupid comments. If you don`t like what you read – stay away.
        If you want absolute proof – study math. This site is for people with a positive mind.

        • Veganrunner

          Well said doctor. The best part about the about long statistical explanation is that they didn’t need to go further than just pointing out that the study had only 16 subjects. Obviously they aren’t expect on how research is conducted. They need to chill just a bit! Do we have chilling foods we might recommend?

          • Veganrunner

            Smart phones are only as smart as their operator! Pardon my typos.

          • SJ M.D.

            A few miles from my home, you can get the best vegan ice cream – sorry probably a little sugar – roll the dice, I take my chance – but I can`t prove it with a study with 500 participants! – it will probably not hurt me, because everybody is having a good time there, and I do not gorge on it.

          • Veganrunner

            And you feel great the next day!

            Let’s conduct a study, find 1000 participates and randomly assign half to your vegan incream and the other half reading the guys comments and lets see who is happyist one week later on a ten point scale!

        • Elderberry

          Sorry, SJ M.D., but here you sound like a biased, humorless, and closed-minded person yourself. Who are you to say who this site is for? 

          I’m a vegan for both ethical and health reasons, and I want the facts and the truth as far as it is possible to ascertain. I welcome relevant critical analysis regarding data and interpretation of data. My experience with scientists is that they live and breathe to analyze data in microscopic detail and then to vigorously argue interpretations in a disinterested (unbiased) manner. Medical doctors in general do not have the same sensibility or training. As evidence, your claim that their analyses are merely “boring negative attitudes.” I can tell you that what I’ve found most boring and useless in this comment forum is your (and one other M.D. who shall remain nameless), your daily cheerleader one liners that are of no use to anyone. Your personal comments about R Ian Flett don’t make any sense. I hope he and donmatesz will not stay away. 

          • SJ M.D.

            Elderberry,
            Sorry for the oneliners – I will try to hold back. My point is that science is about reviewing a lot of articles, and then look at the bulk of evidence. Every study you can criticize, but I find it pointless here (maby it is just me?) to do it every time. The articles has been peer-reviewed and that shoud be good enough. Of course you can criticize articles and find articles saying something different. I just think that it is really great that Michael Greger takes the time to find these interesting articles, and present them to us in this way, “so we don`t have to”. I just see another purpurse of this forum, than to critize the articles – but maby it is just me.

          • Veganrunner

            I would like to add that I bet both these doctors read and analyze a ton of articles on a daily business. Good doctors do that. I think Dr SJ is a neurologist. That requires a lot of reading to stay current. As a therapist I have analylized and published. And what we do is read what’s available and surmise how we might better treat patients with best current research. If I changed my treatment based on one article I would be derelict. Look at what has been presented over the last week and draw a conclusion about nuts. And what is most frustrating is that a different article will come out tomorrow with a different conclusion. Dr Greger has a great sense of humor and so do the doctors.

          • SJ M.D.

            Veganrunner,
            You are great!
            I have removed my comments because it seems pointless and we will just end up with a new egg/cigarette discussion – and we don`t want that – or do we? ;-)

          • Veganrunner

            Probably not but I agree I find the arguments a bit snarky. Statistics really. That is a teachable moment! 

          • SJ M.D.

            BTW: I like cheerleaders……
            :-)

          • Veganrunner

            Hi Elderberry,

            Don’t worry they won’t stay away. 

            Medical research doesn’t work the way you think it does. If you reviewed the article the guys are objecting to, the first thing you note is that is has 16 subjects. Right there we have a problem. Next go to the bottom of the article and see who funded it. Nut company. Another problem. Read it. Sit back. Does it make sense on the grand scheme of things? You have probably watched most of Dr. Greger’s videos. Or at least on the topics you are interested in. How does it fit into the big picture. Nit picking articles Dr. Greger puts up seems kind of pointless to me as well. Because medicine and health doesn’t work that way. Look at all the cholesterol conflict going on lately. Is it cholesterol or is it the inflammation or is it both? And how do we best decrease that inflammation and cholesterol? 

            So what are these doctors most concerned with? The overall picture of how food might (and I would underline that if I could) affect heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. 

            You have to look at the big picture. 

      • Veganrunner

        R Ian Flett,

        Are you serious? You really don’t understand all of this do you? Or the intention of this website. I have an idea. Lets do a case study and you will be the subject. Eat until you are 200 pounds overweight, sit on the couch, get absolutely no exercise while living on the Atkins diet. Lets see how you fair after 20 years. 

    • Rosebud

      Thank you very much, indeed, donmatesz and R Ian Flett and Tom for your time and analysis. And I appreciate the information on “publication bias.” I also expect it will be awhile before we have more certainty about the benefits of nut consumption and that benefits will vary among individuals. 
      I confess that as a nonspecialist I have to laugh sometimes at the intense debate and microscopic analysis over nutrition or health issues that in my time were resolved by modest portions and restraint at the table, the freshest possible produce and real food (no industrial products masquerading as food), no eating between meals or while doing something else, and walking or cycling almost everywhere. 

      • Elderberry

        Rosebud,
        Good point about avoiding industrial products masquerading as food. It will take time and coordinated effort to reduce the level of industrial toxins in the land, water, and air, but we can all immediately decrease the amount that we ingest of our own volition. I consider any meat (including fish, eggs, and dairy) found in the supermarket to be a toxic industrial product, and that is one more reason I became a vegan. 

  • Tom

    OYE!! And then today on Dr Esselstyn’s FB page we see this post:
    WHAT TO BELIEVE??????????
    Nuts – What about nuts? I hear so many different opinions.For those with established heart disease to add more saturated fat is inappropriate.For people with no heart disease who want to eat nuts and avocado and are able to achieve a cholesterol of 150 and LDL of 80 or under without cholesterol lowering drugs, some nuts and avocado are acceptable. No nuts for heart disease patients, includes peanuts and peanut butter, even though peanuts are officially a legume. Chestnuts are the one nut, very low in fat, it is ok to eat. (For a clarification of misinformation about nuts and this diet, seehttp://www.heartattackproof.com/clarification.htm)

    • Tom

      Corrected link:  http://www.heartattackproof.com/clarification.htm

      • R Ian Flett

        There are lots of unresolved dilemmas about nuts.
        Is the phytic acid in them a serious mineral absorption problem or not? Most now doubt it. Are they fattenning? Not necessarily, as Dr Greger suggests.
        Should they be heated to reduce their phytic acid or does the heating turn their precious EFAs rancid? Most studies do not distinguish between roasted and raw consumption, nor salted or not. Other ‘nutters’ state that they should only be eaten directly from the shell. Is a pistachio good for you if it provides extra appetite control for you by being hard to extract the kernel, whilst also being laden with salt? 
        The nut producers heavily fund and thereby influence nut studies or, at least, the selection of those published. By funding multiple studies they can pick only the most flattering results because we do not have registers showing exactly how many studies were done overall. For example, if 20 were funded amongst struggling researchers and only one gets published, the statistical .05% confidence constraint of the chosen paper is totally compromised when taken in context. This ‘publication bias’ that was perfected by the tobacco industry 50 years ago is sometimes acknowledged and other times not. I suspect it will be a while yet before we know nuts’ relative benefits for sure and it may be different amongst individuals. Meanwhile as a best guess, I’m buying a variety of raw, unsalted nuts, as fresh as possible, and storing them in the freezer – as I have for decades.

  • Marci

    A friend who takes thyroid hormone feels anxious, hyper and can’t sleep when she does, and cold, sleepy, lacks energy and gains weight when she doesn’t. A few months ago, she started taking a tablespoon of coconut oil in an attempt to loose weight and gain energy, since she read about this on a health blog. I’ve watched with interest as she’s normalized her energy level and lost a few pounds. Just the other day, I read an article that actually gives scientific validation to the energy burning enhancement of the fat in coconuts:
     http://www.life-enhancement.com/article.aspx?id=2713
    Perhaps there’s something to this video

  • Elderberry

    I appreciate all the useful analysis and commentary by R Ian Flett, donmatesz, and Tom. I’m new to this site and only wish we had more of this quality of analysis. 

    I wonder if someone knowledgeable could at this point recap for us what is the ideal ratio of omega 3 to 6, and also which nuts and seeds come closest to the ideal ratio or else have the highest levels of omega 3. Also, which plant foods in general have the highest levels of omega 3? (Purslane, for example?)

    I ask because I gather from perusing past commentary (by Toxins especially) that it is the ratio of omega 6 to 3 that is important for optimal nutrition and health.

    • R Ian Flett

      Sorry, I’ve tried to answer some aspects of your post on the omega EFAs, but I placed it in the wrong section, so see 3 posts above.

      Also ,I’m very interested in the coconut oil debate. I’m over sensitive to both cold and heat (as were my parents), but my thyroid checks out OK. I’ve been trying the extra virgin coconut oil in hot drinks – delicious – but have not noticed any significant changes after six months.  I do notice that my blood pressure has reduced further which may, of course, be of unrelated cause. Has anyone any reliable positive or negative experiences with it?

      • Toxins

        Coconut oil is overhyped with little scientific backing.

        Only 1 study on weight loss:

        Forty obese women cut their food intake by 200 calories a day and exercised four days a week. Half of them used two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 240 calories’ worth) every day in their cooking and half used soybean oil.
        After three months, both groups had lost the same amount of weight, about two pounds.
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19437058

        Only 1 poorly concluded study with very mixed results on alzheimers:

        Placebo and coconut fat takers scored no different on a cognitive impairment test when the subjects were randomized. If they weren’t randomized (which could represent stacking up the placebo group with very sick patients) then the coconut fat consumers scored slightly better after 45 days. After 90 days though everyone pretty much evened out.
        http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/content/6/1/31

        Only 1 old study done to “support” heart disease:

        “In the only study done in people in the last 17 years, Malaysian researchers last year found that when they fed young men and women 20 percent of their calories from coconut oil for five weeks, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol was 8 percent higher and HDL (“good”) cholesterol was 7 percent higher than when the participants were fed 20 percent of their calories from olive oil”

        Just because Both bad cholesterol and good cholesterol went up does not mean that coconut oil is protective against heart disease and it does not at all mean its healthy. This doesn’t make good sense.
        http://www.ajcn.org/content/early/2011/10/26/ajcn.111.020107

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/6GKEIGB5NCCRNDMJYAJ4PTSEO4 jay

    While I really respect and admire the work of people like John McDougall, Jeff Nelson, Jeff Novick etc., I wish they would reexamine their somewhat doctrinaire positions, about “the fat we eat is the fat we wear” in light of information from this series of videos produced by Dr. Greger.

  • Elderberry

    R Ian Flett, belated thanks for your response (I’ve been away). I understand that the ideal ratio of 3:6 will vary by individual age, health, diet, and even environment; nonetheless, your response gives me information I can work with. As a strict vegan in good health who avoids processed oils, possibly the only thing I need to be concerned about is consuming an excess of omega 3.

  • Iain Wetherell

    Hi Michael – how many grams of nuts would you advise per day?
    Are Brazil and Walnuts the best?
    Many thanks for all your great work.
    Iain  

  • Ann

    yeah im thin and I eat a lot of nuts daily

  • thefirebird

    Hi Dr. Greger,

    In light of these nut videos (I’ve watched them all, with interest), could you expound a bit on what the ramifications would be for somebody who is dieting? Several friends and family members (including myself) are on the weight-loss wagon together. We’re all vegetarian, and several of us are vegan. We all like nuts and are happy to include them in the daily diet, but the question of quantity has come up.

    If nuts do not cause weight gain (so to speak) and in fact may result in weight loss, how do we factor them in when we are working within a set calorie goal? For instance, a “handful” of macadamia nuts is easily a few hundred calories. Does that mean that I have to take that off my list (for instance, 1200 calories – 200, 100 calories for the rest of the day)? One would assume so, but then the obvious implication (as per the people in the studies) is that it wasn’t the nuts per se causing the weight loss – it was the calorie-reduced diet. (As in, if they were eating nuts but not going over their calorie allowance, then they simply had to do without other foods – your basic substitution).

    Under that scheme, eating nuts is not all that attractive because a very few nuts = a lot of calories, whereas a hungry dieter could have a large salad or plate of veggies for the same amount.

    Naturally, we are all concerned with the nutritional content – and there’s no denying the nutritional value of nuts – but to the dieter, it’s of real, very real importance to be able to eat enough (within reason) not to be hungry; and to be able to eat enough (fibrous, wholesome foods) to feel satiated and help one avoid binging. Consequently, regardless of how healthy nuts are, if having the recommended allowance of them means doing without a few pieces of fruit or salads, that’s going to be a hard sell.

    I hope this all makes sense – basically, we’re looking for the answer to “Alright, if nuts help with weight loss, then how many of them do we need to eat daily *and*, do we *have* to subtract from our daily calorie allowance accordingly.”

    Thanks!
    .