I use nuts for so many different recipes, sweet & savoury, snacks, mains and desserts. They are highly nutritious and particularly important for vegans, as they are an excellent source of protein, and minerals such as iron, magnesium and calcium. And contrary to what has been a popular belief, they are not in themselves fattening. And let’s not forget, they taste amazing!
There is a significant amount of scientific research on nuts and their positive effects on our health. I have talked a lot recently about the limitations of this type of research but I would never dismiss it altogether. It has its place when it comes to making decisions about food, but can mean we concentrate on individual nutrients instead of the food as a whole. While there may be evidence about the types of fat and levels of minerals in nuts which make them beneficial to our health, the important thing to remember is the nut is a combination of nutrients and things which we still haven’t identified and barely understand. This combination, this whole food, offers us outstanding health benefits and nuts should play a regular role in your diet.
Numerous studies have shown that there is strong evidence eating nuts lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease (1). The old myth that nuts were too high in fat and therefore caused weight gain, has been shown many times to be false, including a 2007 review of various studies (2). Unfortunately this belief still exists and women in particular have shied away from eating nuts regularly because of their fat content- I was once banned from eating nuts by a trainer for this reason! Long term nut consumption is linked with lower body weight and lowered risk of obesity (2) and they may have a satiating effect not fully understood but believed to reduce overall calorie intake.
Nuts contains 3 types of fats, saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and contain no trans fats. They are low in saturated fat, but high in heart healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. We are seeing a lot more study into saturated fat and it may be true that the link between it and heart disease is weaker than we once thought. However, I believe that it is another case of not just the presence of something but the absence of another that has caused ill health. We can see that there is much proof of the benefits of nuts in relation to cardiovascular disease, and of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, in particular Omega 3’s. There is also evidence vegetarian diets, with the absence of meat and in some cases dairy and the increased consumption of nuts(3), may contribute to the lower incidence of cardiovascular disease in vegetarians(4).
Some nuts have measurable levels of oxalates, phytates and enzyme inhibitors, found naturally in food, animals and humans and having necessary health benefits to us. These have been given the unfortunate name of ‘anti-nutrients’ and are believed to bind to and lower levels of certain minerals, with the main concern being a reduction in available calcium and issues with kidney stone formation from oxalates. But no study has proven there is a significant or truly worrying decrease of these minerals. Furthermore, the minerals that are supposedly reduced from ‘anti-nutrients’ are present in extremely high levels in nuts, offsetting any minor reduction. If you have good digestive health and no pre-existing problems with kidney stones, don’t worry, I think this issue has been over-hyped. Nature has given us these little gems in a perfect little package with nutrients and antioxidants that work well together.
If you have read my blog on grains, they have also caused concern for similar reason, particularly phytic acid. Please remember pyhtic acid, or phytates, have benefits to us and if we soaked and/or cooked everything with them in it, we would be missing out on the benefits they do provide which includes its antioxidant properties, anti cancer effect and possible positive impact on cholesterol and blood sugar. Most of us with a variety of foods available to us, will not have a high phytic acid diet. Developing countries that rely heavily on grains for food and have health issues associated with low mineral intake, may have a diet too high in phytic acid, but in developed countries with a more varied diet we are unlikely to have this problem.
Some people may find they have a problem digesting raw nuts, and if this is the case you may need to roast or activate your nuts- which means soaking and dehydrating or drying on a low heat in your oven. Personally, I activate some of my nuts because its easy for me to do having a dehydrator and because I eat a lot of nuts and grains. I am not convinced it is absolutely essential, or that I had a personal issue with digesting nuts. However, if you think you may have, do try soaking and drying them yourself to see if it makes a difference. Similarly, if you eat a lot of them combined with other foods high in the aforementioned nutrients, you may want to occasionally activate your nuts. But please bear in mind, we soak or cook grains in order to make them edible, so activating nuts as well as this, in my opinion is not essential. There are guides on soaking times, although I have not seen evidence of what these guidelines are based on. It is suggested to soak almonds for 12 hours, walnuts for 6-8 and cashews don’t need soaking before eating- although they are soaked in order to soften for sauces and desserts. If you don’t have a dehydrator, dry them as your oven is cooling down after cooking something else or on the lowest possible heat with the door ajar- ideally the temperature should not exceed 110C so you may want to invest in an oven thermometer.
And finally a note about roasting nuts. Roasting nuts doesn’t affect the monounsaturated fats, but does cause oxidation in the polyunsaturated fats. This means they can become rancid easily and this is pro inflammatory and carcinogenic. If you roast your own nuts, eat them as you roast them rather than storing them.
Here are 3 of my favourite nuts that I always have in my cupboard:
Walnuts: one of a few plant based foods which contain essential omega 3 fat, ALA, with lesser amounts found in a few other nuts. Walnuts are arguably the most beneficial nut with much of the research on cardiovascular health using walnuts. Again, a good source of protein and key minerals including magnesium, calcium and iron, and Vitamin B6. They have twice as many antioxidants as other nuts.
Cashew nuts: roughly 18% protein, very high in magnesium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese. They are versatile and widely used in asian dishes, and in raw vegan desserts as a substitute for dairy. When cashews are soaked they swell and become soft, when blended they turn into a lovely soft thick cream.
Almonds: highest in protein at 21%, lower in fat than other nuts, high in vitamin E , folate and riboflavin, a good source of minerals like other nuts such as magnesium, iron, manganese and zinc. High in monounsaturated fats, the kind of fat that lowers LDL. Interesting fact, we may have over estimated the energy in almonds (5). This means they are actually less calorific than previously thought, and may also include other nuts. I would say this needs more research though.
So if you’re looking for some new ways to include nuts in your daily diet, I have plenty of recipes and tips to help. As a snack, they are of course great on their own, or you could make yourself a very quick and tasty nut and date bar, or Kale Crisps using a cashew based dressing. I add walnuts or almonds to my regular soaked oat breakfast, which helps to keep me full for longer. I regularly add them to salads, along with seeds. I love Nut Loaf and the one I made at Christmas is super tasty and uses a variety of nuts. Nuts take on a whole different texture and flavour when used in desserts and our current favourite is the Raw Chocolate Ganache, Salted Caramel Tart and a simple tasty gluten free dessert is my Fruit Crumble, using ground almonds.
Yes, its official, I am totally obsessed with nuts!
For everything you ever wanted to know about nuts, pop over to Dr Greger at Nutrition facts for very informative videos.
UPDATED 03/03/2014: I have removed a link to a spanish study which I had previously used. While this study supported the thrust of my argument, the statistical results have been misrepresented and I have chosen to remove it.