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Nuts About Nuts: Nature's Perfect Little Package

By L.K. Regan

In the search of a nearly perfect food, we believe we have a winner. Great taste? Check. Nutritionally rich? Check. Broad health benefits? Check. Portable? Oh yeah. We are speaking, of course, about nuts, those delicious, crunchy little packets of nutritional goodness. Maybe you've avoided eating nuts because you've been told they’re high in fat or cholesterol. We invite you to reconsider.

Just what makes nuts nutritional rock stars? A lot, it turns out. To find out what lurks beneath their shells, spoke with Emily Bender, a certified nutrition consultant, member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, and author of the food and nutrition chapter of Our Bodies Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era, who describes nuts succinctly as “amazing nutrition champions.” Contrary to popular misconception, all nuts, Bender says, are healthy—full of vitamins and minerals, and often containing important nutrients that are hard to get from other foods. This makes sense, Bender points out, if you think about what a nut actually is. “Nuts are seeds,” Bender says, “and all nuts and seeds have to contain everything that a plant needs to create life. So nuts have all the stuff of life in them—they’re absolutely complete foods.”

Nuts: A Broader Definition
But what exactly is a nut? Well, from a botanical standpoint, a nut is a dry, one-seeded fruit that does not split open at the seam when it reaches maturity—an example of a true nut you might eat is the chestnut. However, in common usage, the term "nut" has evolved to mean any seed or fruit that has an edible kernel surrounded by a hard or brittle covering. Thus the peanut, which is technically a legume, is considered to be a nut, as is the almond (technically a type of fruit called a drupe), coconut, and cashew, among others.

From a body-powering standpoint, nuts combine fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in one portable package, making them an excellent snack or meal in and of themselves, and especially helpful for balancing blood sugar. Nuts are also high in the essential fatty acids, which are necessary for growth and improve heart risk factors; the must-have vitamins B and E, which are hard to get from food; and important minerals such as magnesium, manganese, selenium, and calcium, which many modern diets lack.

Nut Fat Is Good Fat
Of course, you’ve probably heard that nuts are high in fat—and so they are. While fat content varies among nuts, all of the most popular nuts contain at least 20 grams or more of fat in a single 1/3-cup serving. But while all fat is calorie-dense regardless of source, and therefore more likely to cause weight gain if eaten in excess, nut fat has been shown in multiple studies to be "good" fat. Nut fats do not raise LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that leads to plaque build-up in the arteries, and do raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol that tends to prevent or reduce plaque build-up in the arteries and therefore reduces risk of heart disease.

But can you get fat if you eat nuts? Short answer: Yes, if you eat too much, but not if you practice portion control. Several studies have actually shown that eating nuts may actually reduce your chance of weight gain—most likely because nuts are dense foods that tend to fill you up. The best news is that each dense bite contains a lot more than fat: “From the calories you get from nuts you also get a ton of nutrients,” says Bender.

Nut Prep Step One: Buy 'Em Raw Sounds great, right? Well, before you dig into a can of honeyed cashews, you need to learn about nut preparation. Bender counsels always to buy your nuts raw—and avoid the canned, sugared, and salted kind. These (admittedly tasty) processed nuts aren't just worse for you because of their excess sugar and salt content; they are also more likely to contain spoiled portions, toxins, and free radicals that will harm your health. Because nuts are high in fat, and store fat-soluble toxins, cooked nuts are more likely to be rancid or full of toxins—things you won’t taste through the heavy honey roasting sauce or salt. Also, the fats in nuts are healthy fats—monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in sunflower oil. But polyunsaturated fats in particular are very susceptible to damage from heat and light—and in fact can form free radicals in those conditions. So do your best to get minimally exposed raw nuts which haven't been damaged by processing.

Nut Prep Step Two: Lose the Phytates
Of course, the high fat content also means that raw nuts will spoil. To minimize spoilage while maximizing the health benefits, Bender suggests preparing your nuts yourself. “Nuts not only have to contain all the stuff of life; they have to try to hang onto their nutrients until they reach fertile soil," Bender says. "So nuts contain a binding agent holding onto their nutrients. You want to try to shake that [binding agent] loose.” The binding agents holding onto the minerals and vitamins in nuts are called phytates, and by breaking them down you can more readily access the nutritional value of the nut.

To prepare your nuts and loosen their phytates, fill a jar with nuts, warm water, and a pinch of sea salt, and let them stand overnight. The next day, drain the nuts and either eat immediately or dehydrate them. To dehydrate them, put them on a cookie sheet in a 125-degree oven until they are crunchy again. This can take several hours, but will give you crunchy nuts with a real nutritional punch. (For this recipe and other great nut tips, see Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon).

If you don’t have the time or the desire to soak your nuts, try toasting them for just a few minutes at 350 degrees to get the crunch of roasted nuts without sacrificing the nutrients. You can then put them in a jar and save them. Whether you soak them or not, store your nuts in the refrigerator or freezer, where they are safe from heat and light.

Nutmilk—The Nutritious Energy Drink You Haven't Heard About
How should you eat your nuts, other than by the handful? Make nutmilk, of course. Nutmilk is a creamy, delicious, nutrient-rich liquid that you can drink, put on your oatmeal in the morning, or substitute for milk in a variety of non-baking contexts. Check out the nutmilk recipe below, which Bender derived from The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Michael Murray, Joseph Pizzorno, and Lara Pizzorno.

To make nutmilk, blend one-fourth of a cup of your favourite nuts in a blender until powdered. Add one cup water and continue to blend for one minute. Add another cup of water and blend another minute. Place cheesecloth or a dishtowel (in a pinch) over a mixing bowl and strain the blended mixture. This may take a while. To sweeten this mixture, stir in maple syrup or honey—or, during the blending phase, throw a date into the blender. This recipe will work best for harder nuts, such as almonds and hazelnuts; it will be more difficult for softer nuts, because they will not strain easily.

Nutritious-Nut Chart
Check out the nut chart below so that, in addition to choosing for taste, you can pick your nuts for their unique nutritional benefits. All nuts are good for you, but there are too many types of nuts to list all of them here, so we've chosen a group of popular, tasty favorites.

Nut Type Benefits
Brazil nuts A mere two Brazil nuts have more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant mineral, and thus part of a cancer-prevention diet. The mineral is stored in the soil and is highly variable by region—so supplementing it through your diet is a good idea.
Hazelnuts Eat 3.5 ounces of hazelnuts and you'll get 89 percent of the RDA of vitamin E. Vitamin E is, like selenium, an important antioxidant, helping to prevent cell damage that can lead to cancer. Hazelnuts are also high in magnesium—3.5 ounces has 53 percent of the RDA—and magnesium is a mineral in which Americans are likely to be deficient. They are also very rich in copper.
Almonds Two ounces of almonds have the full RDA of vitamin E, and can help to lower blood cholesterol. Since Vitamin E is very difficult to get from general nutrition, almonds are a great food to add to your diet.
Macadamias In addition to the standard nut effects on cholesterol—raising the “good” kind (HDL) and lowering the “bad” kind (LDL)—macadamia nuts are also very high in thiamin and manganese, with substantial selenium levels to boot.
Coconut For a long time the coconut had its own terrible reputation—entirely unearned. Coconut's fat occurs primarily in the form of medium chain fatty acids, which the body uses as instant energy. Rather than being stored, the fat from coconuts provides an immediate energy source that, unlike carbs, won’t raise blood sugar. Also, the lauric acid in which coconuts are rich is an antimicrobial, killing off all manner of toxic bacteria, protozoa, and viruses in our digestive tract—all while being seriously yummy. Add coconut oil to your smoothie, or order up some curry.
Walnuts Walnuts are super-rich in Omega 3 fatty acids—richer than any other nut. Eat them for heart health and as an anti-inflammatory.
Pistachios In addition to being rich in both vitamins B and E, and generally mineral-loaded, pistachios also offer the best source of potassium among all of the nuts. Two ounces of pistachios have more potassium than a medium-sized banana—and won’t make such a giant mess in your gym bag. There is also some evidence that pistachio extracts may lower liver enzymes.
Pecans The patriotic American nut-eater may want to know that pecans are native to North America. They are rich in plant sterols, which compete for uptake in the digestive tract with cholesterol—meaning they lower your overall cholesterol level. Pecans are also rich in B vitamins. All that, and the world’s greatest pies….