Georgina Young looks at the nutritional benefits of nuts and seeds…
It’s hard not to go nuts for nuts and seeds – handed down to us by Mother Nature herself, they are the most beautifully crunchy little bites of fatty, yet wholesome, nutrition. They’ve been consumed since the dawn of man, and even to this day they are one of the only foods that unites most dietary groups – be it vegans or those following a paleo or primal diet.
Nuts and seeds are a popular snack among vegans; whether raw or roasted, churned into butters, or baked into our favourite sweet treats. But are they really that healthy for us? How much is too much? And should we be consuming these little nutritious morsels raw or cooked?
Tiny powerhouses of nutrition, nuts and seeds tote high levels of antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, and essential minerals that keep your body in tip top condition.
The high levels of healthy omega-3 monounsaturated-fatty acids and polyphenolic flavonoids (antioxidants) make nuts and seeds the perfect recipe for a heart healthy diet; lowering your LDL, your ‘bad cholesterol’, and increasing your HDL, or ‘good cholesterol’ and protecting the body from life-threatening diseases such as coronary heart disease, viral infections, and even mental health diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Although omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial, nuts and seeds contain higher levels of inflammatory polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids. It is important to take note that our bodies require a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, with omega-3’s being rich in EPA’s (eicosapentaenoic acids) and DHA’s (docosahexaenoic acids). The plant-based omega-3’s contained within nuts and seeds are ALA’s (alpha-Linolenic acids) and sadly our bodies cannot utilise them.
The nutty negative
Nuts and seeds contain high levels of phytic acid and other ‘anti-nutrients’. In fact, most nuts contain higher levels of phytic acid than most grains, meaning those vital nutrients in our favourite nutty snacks can’t be absorbed by our bodies very easily.
So should we be avoiding these nutty delights altogether?
Generally speaking, not all nuts and seeds are created equal – and neither are all human beings. If you suffer from digestive issues, have a mineral deficiency, or an autoimmune disease you may want to err on the side of caution and cut them out completely.
Phytic acid is nature’s mechanism of preventing a nut or seed from sprouting until the correct conditions to do so arise. So why is it so bad for our bodies?
Phytates (phytic acids) bind to vital minerals such as calcium and iron, blocking their absorption within the body. If you eat a nut or seed high in a mineral you’ll only end up absorbing a very low amount that the nut or seed contained originally.
But don’t let this information alarm you. If you’re following a well-balanced plant-based lifestyle [ your diet will already be full of nutrient-dense foods, so a little mineral leaching will most likely go unnoticed. Eating a handful of nuts and seeds in moderation isn’t the same as eating a bowlful of rice. In fact, eating a bowlful of nuts and seeds containing almost twice the amount of calories, coupled with a very high fat content, would most certainly be quite the challenge!
The good news is you can remove the bulk of these phytates and other anti-nutrients by soaking them in salty water overnight, then dehydrating or gently roasting them. This process is known as ‘activation’.
How to activate your nuts and seeds
Activating your nuts and seeds by soaking them in a mineral-rich solution starts the germination process, making them easier to digest and the nutrients more bioavailable (easier to absorb) within your body. Some people sprout and ferment their nuts and seeds to remove as much of the phytic acid as possible, but for healthy individuals activating is more than adequate.
For every cup of nuts and seeds you’ll need two cups of warm water, half a tablespoon of good quality mineral salt, such as Himalayan pink salt, dissolved into a large bowl. Once the salt has dissolved, add your nuts and seeds, leave uncovered for 18-24 hours, rinse thoroughly, then pop into your dehydrator or oven on the lowest heat setting, until dry.
You don’t have to dry your nuts fully, but leaving them moist will give room for bacteria and mould to grow and so you’ll have to eat them quickly to avoid them going rancid.
Raw or cooked?
The polyunsaturated fats contained within nuts and seeds are highly unstable and oxidise easily when in contact with heat. When eaten in large amounts these oxidised polyunsaturated fats can cause toxic reactions with the protein and sugars within our bodies, ultimately causing inflammation. For this reason they are better eaten soaked and raw.
Whenever soaking isn’t an option, gently roasting nuts and seeds will drastically reduce the phytate content.
Weigh up the pros and cons and try to stick to raw activated nuts and seeds whenever possible – but certainly don’t lose any sleep if you can’t!
You’ve probably sat through the majority of this article pondering over those apples you’ve slathered in nut butter and bowlfuls of grain-free granola you’ve chomped your way through. But how much is simply too much?
Deciding how much to eat not only depends upon your current health status and weight goals, but also on the type of nuts and seeds you are eating and whether they are raw or cooked.
As a general rule of thumb, try to eat a variety of raw, soaked nuts and seeds, and don’t exceed one handful per day.
Treat them as a way to garnish your meals, rather than snacking on them frequently, and keep the paleo baking strictly to celebrations. If you find that after eating your favourite batch of paleo pancakes you aren’t feeling too good, or you gained a few extra pounds after that nut butter binge, it’s time to cut back a little.
What to Go Nuts For…
Nutrition: Very high in omega-6 and selenium, and a good source of vitamin E, copper, magnesium, and thiamin. Incredibly high in phytic acid. Only consume 2-3 daily.
Great For: Preventing major diseases, lowering cholesterol, and good for skin health.
Preparation: Always soak first, store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Perfect in: Raw nut butters and enjoyed on their own, freshly soaked.
Nutrition: Cashews are the seeds of the cashew apple and not a nut! Very low in omega-6’s, high in good fats, and a great source of copper, magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous, but incredibly high in phytic acid.
Great For: Maintaining heart health.
Preparation: Always soak first. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. They are suitable for roasting.
Perfect in: Raw desserts, salads and roasted nut mixes.
Nutrition: Very low in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, anti-nutrients and phytic acid. Good source of fibre, vitamins B6 and C, copper and manganese.
Great For: Aiding in digestion, lowering cholesterol and balancing blood sugars.
Preparation: Soaking isn’t essential. Suitable for roasting at high temperatures.
Perfect in: Cakes, stews and nut roasts.
Nutrition: Very low in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, anti-nutrients and phytic acid. Great source of good fats, fibre, copper, manganese and thiamin. Healthy when consumed in high amounts.
Great For: Maintaining heart health and digestion.
Preparation: Soaking is optional. Suitable for cooking at low-moderate temperatures. Also great to use in oil form.
Perfect in: Herb crusting for pasta dishes, pesto and raw nut butters.
Nutrition: High in omega-6 fats and phytic acid. A great source of magnesium and good source of copper, iron, manganese, phosphorous and zinc.
Great For: Heart, liver, and skin health and immune system support.
Preparation: Best soaked and roasted to remove high levels of phytic acid.
Perfect in: Grain-free granola, trail mixes and sprinkled over salads.
Nutrition: High in fibre, protein, vitamins A and E, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium, but very high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.
Great for: Alleviating PMS symptoms and arthritic joint pain. A great weight loss aid.
Preparation: No need to soak before consumption, but they do need to be stored in the fridge as they are prone to rancidity.
Perfect in: Raw salads, vegan dishes and for making hemp milk.