A handful of almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds can be the perfect go-to when you need a quick snack, no mess, no fuss. And nuts and seeds in salads, smoothies, and desserts are always a favorite addition.
What’s more, nuts and seeds are a super-concentrated form of nutrition - they contain all of the nutrients that Mother Nature needs to grow an entire plant! That’s a lot of power squeezed into a tiny package.
Sadly, no food is perfect, and that includes nuts and seeds. They can be a great choice for most people but not for everyone. There is also a secret to eating them the right way to get the most benefit from little powerhouses.
When I talk about nuts, I am referring directly to tree nuts which means walnuts, almonds, pistachios and the like, but not peanuts, which are legumes.
The good news
Nuts and seeds are rich in nutrients and can have some powerful health benefits. A few benefits of including them into your diet include:
Help you live longer.
The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed data from more than 70,000 women and 40,000 men and concluded that “the frequency of nut consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality, independently of other predictors of death.”
One large study showed that people who regularly eat nuts have a lower body mass index, a smaller waist circumference, and a lower weight than those who avoid them. Another study found that eating chia seeds can promote weight loss in people who are overweight or obese and have diabetes.
Blood sugar regulation.
According to a large meta-study, eating tree nuts can improve your cholesterol and triglycerides, lowering your risk for heart disease.
Protect against cancer
In particular, research suggests that tree nuts can help protect against colorectal cancer.
Manage blood pressure.
Studies show that both tree nuts and flax seeds can help you fight hypertension.
Those are some pretty impressive findings, and they may make you want to guzzle down a ton of nuts or seeds right away. Before you go too nuts on your nuts, there are a few cautions to consider.
The downsides to nuts and seeds
While nuts and seeds are a very healthy food for most people, they do come with a few concerns that may make them a bad choice for you.
Both tree and ground nuts (peanuts, not discussed here) are some of the world’s most allergenic foods. While people with severe nut allergies experience unmistakable or even fatal symptoms, you may not connect the dots if your symptoms are milder.
Nuts and seeds both contain two substances that can potentially cause problems for you if you eat these foods in large quantities, have autoimmune issues or gut and digestive concerns:
These are low-level toxins that plants use to ward off pests. The biggest sources of lectins are from grains, legumes, and dairy, but nuts and seeds can also provide a significant dose. Lectins can bind with the lining of the small intestine, potentially causing damage leading to a ‘leaky gut.’
This compound binds to minerals, keeping your intestine from absorbing them. In addition, it inhibits several digestive enzymes needed to break down starch and proteins. On the other hand, phytic acid may actually help to fight cancer, meaning it has both risks and benefits.
Most, nuts (other than a few types, like macadamia nuts) are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory, and lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3s. On the flip side, nuts are loaded with other nutrients that appear to balance this out, making them anti-inflammatory overall. The devil is in the details and their benefit or detriment is very individualized.
Lastly, nuts are easy to overdo. When I see a client whose fat loss has stalled or is not seeing the results they expect, one of the most common culprit turns out to be nuts.
Getting the most out of your nuts
As with most foods, even the real, whole, well-sourced varieties (the ones I talk about incessantly), the key with nuts and seeds is to eat them wisely. To get all their benefits without suffering any bad effects, there are a few general guidelines:
· If you have an autoimmune condition, you probably should limit nuts and seeds or remove them from your diet entirely.
· Eat nuts and seeds in moderation. One closed handful a day will give you lots of nutrients without overloading you with anti-nutrients or excessive calories (yes, they do count eventually).
· Listen to your body. If you develop digestive problems after eating nuts or seeds, or you experience symptoms like a runny nose, itchy eyes, or a stuffy chest, it may be a sign that your body is not able to appropriately handle them. Repeat your nut or seed challenge and see if you get the same results. If so, may be a good idea to give some or all of these foods a pass.
· Consider soaking or sprouting. Soaking nuts or seeds overnight in salty water will remove most of the phytic acid. (You can dry them out the next day in an oven set to the lowest possible temperature.) You can also sprout nuts and seeds, which reduces their lectin content, increases the availability of their nutrients, and makes them easier to digest.
· Don’t go too crazy over nut flours. It’s fun to bake with these flours but do this occasionally—not frequently. Baked goods, no matter how ‘whole foods’ based are still treats and indulgences.
· If you buy nuts in bulk, freeze them to keep them from losing nutrients and going rancid.
· If possible, buy raw, organic nuts and seeds.
It is also important to not get stuck on eating only 1 type of nut or seed. rotating your nuts and seeds will provide a wider range of nutrients. While nuts and seeds are all rich in nutrients, they’re rich in different nutrients:
Almonds provide lots of magnesium, which helps prevent sudden heart attacks.
Macadamia nuts are rich in the same healthy fatty acids found in olive oil.
Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds are rich in selenium, which does everything from reducing your cancer risk to fighting viruses.
Pumpkin seeds provide a good dose of zinc, a mineral your immune system needs to function optimally.
Pistachios are rich in l-arginine, a precursor to nitric oxide—and nitric oxide, in turn, helps prevent cardiovascular disease
Pecans have lots of manganese (crucial for bone health) and copper (needed for healthy bones and tissues).
Walnuts contain a good supply of heart-healthy alpha linoleic acid, and they have more antioxidants than any other nut. Pecans and hazelnuts, too, are loaded with antioxidants.
Chia seeds and flax seeds are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Flax seeds contain lignans that help protect against breast and prostate cancer.
As long as you can tolerate them and you are able to manage your quantities, the more different types of nuts and seeds you incorporate into your diet, the more healing nutrients you will be supplying for your cells. Nut butters and flours are great options too but keep the same principles in mind and enjoy.