Name one healthy food equally loved by low-carb devotees, ketogenic followers, vegans, and vegetarians.
Nuts and seeds earn a solid health-halo reputation because they come loaded with protein, healthy fats, and nutrients including hard-to-get minerals including magnesium and zinc.
Can Nuts & Seeds Fit into A Healthy Diet? (Yes, with Several Caveats)
Among their benefits, manufacturers and healthcare experts correctly argue regularly eating a few ounces of, say, almonds can help you lower cholesterol, (1) improve cardiovascular health, (2) and even lose a few pounds. (3)
That last one might sound particularly strange considering nuts and seeds are a concentrated source of calories and fat.
Many of those you buy in drugstores and supermarkets, aren’t necessarily healthy, but not for reasons you might think (calories and fat).
The real reason many commercial packaged roasted, salt nuts are unhealthy: They come cooked with cottonseed oil. While some experts tout non-hydrogenated cottonseed oil as a better alternative to hydrogenated oils, (4) its higher polyunsaturated fat means cottonseed oil can become rancid at higher temperatures.
Nuts cooked in rancid oils that sit on grocery shelves for many months usually mean rancid or oxidized nuts, compromising their nutrient content and basically yielding inferior, moldy nuts — or, legumes. (Interestingly, one study argued the antioxidants in nuts might reduce their oxidative impact on your health, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it.) (5)
Despite those rancid oils, people automatically assume those bags of roasted, salted nuts make delicious, healthier alternatives to the junk food array that lines, say, gas station and drugstore aisles. At one point we called nuts “chips for the low-carb crowd.”
Some nut varieties are obviously not healthy in the least little bit. Candied, cocoa-dusted, yogurt-covered, and glazed are code words that those nuts have basically become candy. Even one brand of lower-sugar cocoa-flavored almonds I found contained junk ingredients like modified potato starch, maltodextrin (corn), and two artificial sweeteners.
On the opposite spectrum you’ll find raw nuts, which might taste flavorless and a little less crunchy compared to roasted, salted nuts. (They might not actually be exactly raw, as I’ll share in a minute with cashews and almonds.)
In the middle – somewhere between the candy nuts and raw ones – are roasted, salted nuts, which admittedly are slightly better than most snack foods but not as healthy as you might imagine.
That said, nuts and seeds can be healthy, and plenty of science confirms a few ounces daily bestow numerous benefits. Here’s the scoop.
Science Supports Eating Nuts (in Moderation)
In many ways the right nuts and seeds are a great snack, packed with hard-to-get nutrients like zinc and magnesium along with protein, fiber, and yes, that still-feared dietary fat.
“Cutting out nuts and seeds entirely from your diet because they are fattening is one of the worst pieces of advice ever offered to the American public,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman in Eat Fat, Get Thin. “Study after study has shown that increased nut consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer, and death.”
Let’s look at some of those benefits. Despite their high caloric load, studies show nuts can help you lose weight. (6)
One study involving 8,865 men and women found nuts could reduce your risk for weight gain (not exactly the same thing as weight loss) while providing cardioprotective (heart-healthy) benefits. (7)
Researchers also applaud nuts for heart health. One study found eating them at least four times a week could reduce your risk for coronary heart disease 37 percent compared with folks who never or seldom ate nuts. (8)
Besides lowering your risk for heart disease, (9) nuts can benefit people with Type 2 diabetes. (10) Their fiber, protein, and healthy fats help balance blood sugar, but eating nuts also means you’re not grabbing sugar-heavier snacks.
Want to beat cancer and live longer? Studies show a handful of nuts a day can protect against cancer (plus obesity) and even promote longevity in folks. (11)
Nuts also make your brain healthier: Studies show they can boost mood and cognitive incline. (12)
And don’t forget seeds. Pumpkin seeds provide amazing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, (13) while the healthy fat in flax seeds – namely, anti-inflammatory alpha-linolenic acid or ALA – provides cardiovascular and other benefits. (14)
“But all that fat.”
I understand very well that while I tout the health benefits of nuts, you might be looking at the fat content.
Yes, nuts and seeds are mostly fat. But remember: The dietary fat in nuts actually provides some of their health benefits, such as the aforementioned anti-inflammatory ALA in flaxseeds (also in chia seeds and walnuts).
Most nuts and seeds contain a mix of all three dietary fat “flavors”: Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. A little of the fat in nuts comes from saturated fat; most of it comes from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
When you hear about the heart-healthy benefits from Mediterranean diets or that folks who consume olive oil have lower rates of heart disease, some of those benefits come from monounsaturated fat.
“For our pre-agricultural ancestors, [monounsaturated fat] accounted for about half the total fat intake and 16 to 25 percent of total calorie intake from wild meat, bone marrow, and nuts,” writes Hyman. That’s more than most people get today.
Pecans are especially high in monounsaturated fat. (Fun Fact: In his book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, Dr. Jonny Bowden notes there are more than 300 varieties of pecans.) Macadamia nuts are another high-monounsaturated superstar: At about 80 percent, they’re higher even than the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.
Then you’ve got polyunsaturated fats, which come in two “sub-flavors”: Omega 6s, which often get a bad rep but are usually fine in nuts, and omega 3s, which are anti-inflammatory.
In the past I’ve written about the inflammatory impact of eating too many omega 6s, and all nuts and seeds contain linoleic acid and other omega 6s. Roasting or otherwise heating nuts and seeds can damage those omega 6s, which could be a problem.
At the same time, the benefits nuts and seeds provide – the protein, nutrients (some of which, like vitamin E, have antioxidant benefits), and omega 3s would likely override the negative impact omega 6s have. Besides, unlike a grain-fed steak or vegetable oils, you’re not eating a ton of nuts and seeds every day.
Nuts and seeds also contain various amounts of omega 3s. Walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are among the highest sources of the dominant plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linelenic acid (ALA).
For decades, debate raged about whether vegans and vegetarians could get sufficient omega 3 intake from the anti-inflammatory omega 3 ALA, which your body theoretically converts to the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Over the last few years, researchers found your body’s enzymes are pretty lousy at making these longer-chain fatty acids, therefore getting sufficient EPA and DHA becomes crucial. If animal foods aren’t in your diet, consider an algae-derived DHA supplement. (15)
At the same time, don’t let that stop you from eating ALA-rich plant foods like walnuts and flaxseeds.
“Much of the research on omega-3 fats that demonstrates such strong cardioprotective benefits involves two omega-3 fats that are found in fish: EPA and DHA,” says Bowden. “The third omega-3 [ALA] is the kind found in walnuts (and flaxseeds). The body can theoretically make the other two (EPA and DHA) from the ALA in walnuts, but it doesn’t always do such a great job. ALA from walnuts is still a great omega-3 and has health benefits of its own, but I personally recommend getting some additional, fully formed EPA and DHA in your diet either through fish or fish-oil supplements.”
Worth noting, especially to vegetarians who might not otherwise get enough DHA: When you see omega-3 enriched eggs at your grocery store, they usually come from hens fed a diet containing flaxseed. When the hens digest flax, some of the ALA gets broken down into DHA and both fatty acids transfer to the yolk. One omega-3 enriched egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and 75 to 100 milligrams of DHA.
I also respect that not all people have the same dietary requirements. Not everyone’s genes or lifestyle will place the same nutritional needs upon an individual. It’s very possible that someone genetically coded to consume less fish will do just fine with ALA on its own. (But, I know that for me, personally, if I don’t take in a good amount of fish oil per day — direct DHA and EPA — my body doesn’t function as optimally and nutritional testing verifies this.)
But back to nuts and seeds: Overall, please don’t fear their fat. At the same time, be aware that damaged fat can be bad: Higher heats can damage these fats. Roasting flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts can damage their fragile omega-3 fatty acids.
While more stable, even monounsaturated fat can also become prone to damage with higher heats. Bowden recommends eating pecans fresh (within three weeks of harvesting), since their high oil content means they can go rancid quickly. He recommends buying them in the shell and keeping them in the fridge or frozen in an airtight container, where they can keep for up to a year.
Protein in Nuts and Seeds
While they don’t contain the protein quality or quantity you’ll find in animal foods like pasture-raised eggs or grass-fed beef or even plant foods like legumes, nuts and seeds do provide impressive protein amounts. One ounce of almonds, for instance, packs about six grams of protein.
Protein in nuts and seeds are incomplete, meaning they lack some essential amino acids. As long as you’re eating a variety of protein-rich foods. I’ve never met anyone who used nuts and seeds as their primary protein source.
Besides, more than just the protein itself, nuts and seeds provide impressive amounts of functional amino acids like arginine, which your body needs to make a molecule called nitric oxide (NO) that relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow. (16)
Fiber in Nuts and Seeds
I recommend getting about 35 grams of dietary fiber daily. Most people aren’t getting anywhere near that, and studies show on average Americans get less than half of the recommended levels.
Among its benefits, sufficient dietary fiber can significantly lower your risk for developing coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and certain gastrointestinal diseases. Fiber lowers blood pressure, normalizes cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, benefits gut health, and can help you lose weight. (17)
In other words, you want to get sufficient fiber to get those and other benefits. And nuts and seeds make a great way to get fiber.
While specific amounts vary, nuts and seeds are fiber powerhouses. An ounce of almonds contains about four grams of fiber, while pistachio nuts and pecans provide about three grams each. (18) And don’t forget seeds. Freshly ground flaxseed in your protein smoothie makes an easy way to boost your fiber intake. (19)
Calorie for calorie, legumes as well as leafy and cruciferous vegetables provide more dietary fiber. But an ounce of nuts can help you meet your quota, and tossing flax or chia seeds into your smoothie can provide an even bigger fiber boost.
Nuts and Seeds are Nutrient Superstars
Like their several varieties of dietary fat, nuts and seeds contain various amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. A who’s who of every nutrient in nuts and seeds would become encyclopedic and quickly bore you silly.
Let’s look at a few highlights. Take magnesium, a mineral that plays a role in over 300 enzymes. Studies show this calming mineral can help convert 5-HTP to your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, boosting your mood in the bargain. (20) Getting sufficient magnesium from food can be a challenge, yet nuts and seeds are major players in this mineral.
Zinc is another underrated mineral superstar that plays a role in immune health and lots more. (21)
Still another immune-booster mineral is selenium. While most nuts and seeds provide this mineral, Brazil nuts – that oddball nut in the mixed-nut can – packs an impressive 544 mcg in one ounce. (Actual amounts vary according to the soil.) That might be the highest selenium content of any food.
“Selenium is an essential trace element that [has] a protective effect against cancer,” writes Bowden. “According to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, it’s ‘antioxidant, immunomodulatory, anticarcinogenic, and anti-atherogenic,’ which, translated into English, means that it protects the cells, boosts the immune system, helps fight cancer, and helps prevent heart disease. Not exactly an undistinguished résumé.”
Nuts and seeds also come packed with vitamins. Almonds are rich in vitamin E, making them an excellent source of this fat-soluble vitamin that studies show can prevent cognitive decline. (22)
Let’s not leave out seeds in the nutrient parade. Besides being packed with hard-to-get minerals like zinc and magnesium, pumpkin seeds contain beta-sitosterols, plant sterols that optimize cholesterol and benefit prostate health.
Interestingly, Bowden says pumpkin seeds are pretty low in beta-sitosterol, though they “may work synergistically with other botanicals like saw palmetto, as a couple of studies have demonstrated. And pumpkin seeds contain chemicals called cucurbitacins, which are believed to interfere with the production of a metabolic byproduct of testosterone known as DHT (dihydrotestosterone). DHT is partly responsible for both hair loss and benign prostate hyperplasia.”
If that sounds like a mouthful, here’s the take-home: Many nutrients work together. Take resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant found in red wine but also grapes and peanuts. Most likely, resveratrol’s benefits optimize when it works synergistically with other compounds.
Among antioxidant powerhouses (and all nuts and seeds are winners), the top prize might go to walnuts. Researchers find they had the strongest free and total polyphenols (regardless whether they were raw or roasted) and highest lipoprotein-bound antioxidant activity. (23)
Don’t Get Caught Up in the Nut-Nutrient Hoopla
Every so often, a nut or seed get elevated to superstar status. Almonds are a perennial favorite, though sometimes walnuts or pumpkin seeds will usurp their glory. Or maybe Brazil nuts with their high selenium content.
Others rarely make the cut. Since they’re almost pure fat (of the monounsaturated variety, but still…), plus they’re kind of expensive, macadamias sometimes get a bad rep. Or hazelnuts: “Poor hazelnuts. Nobody loves them, at least not enough to invite them to the A-list parties in Hollywood,” Bowden says.
Don’t get caught in the one-is-superior mentality. While some are more nutrient-dense than others, eating a variety of nuts and seeds provides an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants as well as fiber, protein, and healthy fat.
In the nutrition world, we have something call “dose-dependent” foods. In moderation they provide nutrients and fit brilliantly into a well-designed eating plan. In excess, their drawbacks often outweigh potential benefits.
Nuts and seeds fall into that category. They are not all-you-can-eat foods, particularly for weight loss. Anyone who’s opened a can of almonds knows you can easily consume 1,000 or more calories in one sitting. If portion control becomes a problem, buy nuts in pre-portioned bags or portion them out yourself into small Ziploc bags. And no noshing while you’re dividing them up!
Sprouting and Soaking Nuts & Seeds – Do It Yourself
I mentioned before how commercial roasted, salted nuts aren’t so great. And maybe buying raw almonds isn’t as appealing and besides, you notice you’re not digesting them very well.
Fortunately, you’ve got a few do-it-yourself options to optimize digestibility and nutrient absorption of nuts and seeds.
Soaking organic raw nuts activates their enzymatic activity and reduces anti-nutrients like enzyme inhibitors, phytates, and lectins that can compromise nutrient absorption. Think of soaking as a cold shower for nuts: It allows the nut to fully “wake up.”
Here’s how to do it:
- For every four cups of raw nuts, cover with filtered, room-temperature water (about two inches). Add a small about of sea salt (about two teaspoons). Allow the nuts to “soak” overnight. This allows nuts to germinate, boosts flavor, and makes them easier to digest.
- Drain and rinse them well to remove leftover salt residue.
- Remove the nuts from the solution and put them in a low-temperature, low-humidity environment.
- Spread out your nuts thoroughly to allow them to dry and dehydrate. Dry them at a low temperature (no higher than 150°F or 65° C) to dry and dehydrate.
You can take the process even further by sprouting nuts, which enhances the nutrient absorption process even more. Essentially sprouting keeps nuts moist longer to enhance digestion and nutrient absorption.
To do that, rinse nuts (step two) and keep them moist by rinsing every four to eight hours. You can continue this process one to two days, depending on the type of nuts you’re sprouting. Then simply go on to steps three and four above.
If you love the fabulous crunch of roasted nuts, do it yourself. Roast nuts at the lowest temperature possible to minimize acrylamide formation, ideally below 265°F (130°C). Sprinkle with a little sea salt and you’re good to go.
No, They Aren’t Really Nuts, but Don’t Tell Them
Even though they have “nut” in their name, peanuts are legumes, not nuts. That’s not necessarily bad (peanuts provide plenty of nutrients), but it does make them more susceptible to toxins.
If you ever get the trivia question and have to explain, here’s your answer. While nuts have hard, protective shells, legumes have softer, more permeable pods. Peanuts also grow underground because they’re not part of the plant’s root system. Now you know.
These conditions make them more susceptible to temperature conditions like humidity and moisture, increasing growth of mold and making them more vulnerable to things like aflatoxin, a carcinogen that can potentially inhibit detoxification and fat burning. (24)
Many people are especially surprised to learn cashews are a fruit, not a nut (hence their slightly higher carbohydrate load).
A cashew apple’s top end is attached to a stem (that comes from a tree). The bottom end is attached to the cashew nut which is enclosed in a shell. They’re pretty funny looking the first time you see one. In plant terms, the cashew apple is essentially an accessory fruit that grows on the cashew seed (or, the nut).
Speaking of raw nuts, according to Bowden, raw cashews aren’t really raw.
“The nut meat has an outer protective layer that itself contains a rather nasty, caustic oil that is highly irritating to the skin—not surprising since cashews are a member of the poison ivy family,” he says. “The oil is removed by heating the nuts in an inclined, perforated, rotating drum… Once they’re rid of the oil, the harvesters spray the nuts with water to cool them.”
Ditto for raw almonds.
“All California almonds — which would be virtually all the almonds in the country — are either heat-pasteurized or treated with a fumigant,” writes Lesley McClurg in a National Public Radio (NPR) blog. “The processes, which have been required by law since 2007, are intended to prevent foodborne illness. But almond aficionados say the treatments taint the flavor and mislead consumers.” (25)
Whether that becomes misleading, clever marketing, or both, maybe manufacturers need to rethink the word “raw” with these nuts?
Nuts in a Jar: Finding the Right Nut Butter
All most kids know is peanut butter, but one day you walk into a health food store and discover a whole array of nut and seed butters, perfect for spreading onto apple or celery slices or maybe just eating right out of the jar.
Popular butters include almond butter, walnut butter, cashew butter, peanut butter, and sunflower butter. Like the nut or seed themselves, they all taste slightly different but they’re all delicious.
If you can, grind your own nuts or seeds into butters. (Most health food stores provide a grinder.) Second best would be a shelf variety, but read those ingredients.
“Do not confuse the real kind [of peanut butter] with the household brands that are crammed with sugar and frequently have trans fats,” says Bowden. “There should be no sugar in your peanut butter (other than the tiny amount in the peanuts), and there should certainly be no ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ (translation: trans fats) in the ingredient list.”
I would say the same thing about any nut or seed butter. I’ve seen some almond and other nut butters sweetened with agave and other sugars. They should contain nuts, maybe sea salt, and that’s it.
Be aware too nut and seed butters are incredibly easy to overeat, even easier than nuts and seeds because they’re ground and easier to consume (no munching required). A few tablespoons can wrap up several hundred calories. Step away from the jar before you’ve eaten half the container, because believe me, doing so becomes very easy.
Nut Milks Dominate the Dairy Aisle
Once upon a time, you might have found almond milk in the refrigerated section and canned coconut milk, but that’s about it.
Times have changed. Visit your grocery store shelves and you’ll find a proliferation of dairy alternative beverages including almond milk but also cashew milk, pumpkin seed milk, hemp milk, flaxseed milk, and coconut milk. (Okay, coconut is actually a fruit, but it’s worth mentioning because it dominates among the nut-milk aisle.) Nut milks carry different tastes, and if you steer clear of cow’s milk for whatever reasons (and you probably should), you’ll probably find one that suits your preferences.
A few caveats. I would steer away from nut milks higher in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) like flaxseed milk because processing could damage those fragile omega 3s, which can also go rancid easily.
Like with nut butters, read those ingredients. I’ve seen nut milks with as much sugar as regular chocolate milk. Even if the label says “no sugar added” or whatever, check the nutrition label. Ideally, a nut milk should have no more than a few grams of sugar per serving.
Finally, you’ll find recipes online to make your own nut milks, which are relatively easy plus you get to control the ingredients and ensure the freshest nuts.
Benefits of Nuts – Getting Maximum Mileage from Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds make a great snack whether you’re stuck at the airport, taking a four-hour flight, or driving cross-country and can’t stop for a meal for a few hours. They’re nutrient-dense, high-caloric foods that keep hunger at bay, plus they taste pretty darn delicious as a snack.
The late Dr. Robert Atkins insisted he always traveled with a jar of macadamia nuts on flights because they make the perfect snack or (if in a bind) mini-meal. Because they’re incredibly portable, nuts and seeds travel easily. Pack your own or prepare to pay exorbitant amounts at airport kiosks and hotel rooms!
Quantity and quality matter here. Even though they make nutrient powerhouses, nuts and seeds are not unlimited foods (sorry), and you can get their benefits with just a few ounces every day.
“Nuts are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” says Hyman. “Packed with healthy fats, they help reduce appetite. The key is to eat them in moderation. You want them as part of a healthy diet. But just like you wouldn’t binge on three bags of broccoli, you shouldn’t binge on three bags of nuts. You can overdo it and end up eating just too much food. A handful or two a day is all it takes to reap their potent benefits—and to satisfy your crunch desires!”