By Jennifer Hobbs
Nuts are natures energy bundles. They are the mature (dry) fruit of flowering trees where the nut itself constitutes a single seed contained within a hardened ovary wall. Shoved in backpacks and pockets nuts have traditionally been a convenient energy boost for campers, hikers and boy scouts (girls too I imagine) since – well, forever. Interestingly peanuts are not nuts as they are members of the legume family, which gives us beans, however as they are still the mature fruit of the plant and contain many of the same nutrients they are just as valuable, nutritionally speaking. Each nut will produce a whole tree and contains all the fat, protein and nutrients to required to create a new tree so it should be no surprise that a single almond contains 10 calories, much of this coming from their high fat content.
It is just this high fat content that made nuts a no – no in diets for many years. All calories are not created equal though and studies reveal nuts are much less fattening than many other sources of energy. Healthy, tasty and full of protein nuts are easily one of the healthiest snack foods available. They are high in essential fatty acids, minerals and other important nutrients. It is said they can lower cholesterol and help prevent heart disease.
There are many health benefits of nuts. They are high in fibre, protein and fat so they are very filling, which is good both for muscle mass and body fat loss. They contain Vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, copper and are a good source of anti-oxidants. A small handful of nuts a day may help prevent diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration (loss of sight), and cancer.
Nuts are high in both calories and fat. If you are an athlete you may not be bothered by this, after all they contain loads of protein and their fats are of the good variety; key players in prevention of all the nasty diseases mentioned above. If you are dieting to lose body fat nuts can help you feel fuller for longer, but balance this with their their relatively high calorie value.
Before you start munching them by the cup full though, there are some things you should know. Nuts alone do not offer a complete protein source for the human body. Vegetarians needs to eat nuts with beans or legumes to form a complete protein. Nuts, like many foods, have more Omega 6 than Omega 3, so in a balanced diet foods rich in both Omega 3 and Omega 6 are important.
Nuts are high in the so called ‘good’ un-saturated fats. Mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats have been shown in a number of reputable studies to substantially reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and helping to keep arteries supple and flexible. There are studies that show people who regularly eat small amounts of nuts can reduce their risk of death from heart disease by up to 35%. Additionally those people tend to weigh less. I suspect the nut eaters are probably more health conscious generally but there are other benefit to nuts as well.
Many nuts are very high in protein. This combined with their fat content helps you feel full for longer so a small serving of nuts can really help with weight management. There is even some evidence out there suggesting including nuts in your diet promotes weight loss. Almond and brazil nuts contain roughly equal amounts of protein and carbohydrate by weight making them a good low GI food option. In walnuts and hazelnuts the ratio slightly favors carbs, but the star in the low carb stakes is the cashew with two and a half times more protein than carbohydrate! Don’t go nuts though, each variety has its own specialities so the best approach is to eat a variety.
Nuts are high in both Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids. Both are essential for health. They have opposing roles in the body with Omega 6 promoting inflammation in the body and Omega 3 having anti inflammatory properties. Omega 6 has been getting a bit of a bad rep lately and it is true that too much can contribute to inflammatory conditions behind many chronic illnesses however it plays a vital role in preventing bleeding, in activating the immune system, in stress, in brain development and growth as well as promoting healthy skin and hair.
Most nuts have significantly more Omega 6 than Omega 3 and for this reason consumption of nuts (as well as other Omega 6 rich foods) should be balanced with equal levels of Omega 3 in the diet. Foods rich in omega 3 and low in Omega 6 include Flax seeds and cold water fish species such as wild salmon and tuna, sardines and mackerel. The need to balance Omega 6 and Omega 3 in the diet can also be achieved with Omega 3 supplements such as fish and krill oil. Too much Omega 6 in the diet promotes all inflammatory conditions including injury and may slow the healing of sports injuries where inflammation is a factor so if you are recovering from such an injury it may be best to lay off the nuts for a while.
One of the types of fat found in nuts is alpha-linolenic acid, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid machine. This little goody is used by the body to make EPA and DHA. These in turn are essential in cell function and have been found to play a positive role in a range of conditions, from depression and ADHD to rheumatoid arthritis, stroke and high blood pressure.
Being anti-inflammatory Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in the management of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis by helping to calm the pain sufferers experience. They also are important for healthy skin and hair, brain function, eyesight, joint health and are an important element in the aging process. Deficiencies of Omega 3 have been linked to a wide range of problems from obesity to depression and consumption of nuts has been linked to improvements in and prevention of many such disorders.
Omega 3 is needed to maintain the wall of the cells in the body. With out it the cell walls become fragile and permeable, causing the cell to ‘leak’. This leakage happens in both ways making the person more vulnerable to allergies and inflammation. Cell damage and inflammation contribute to many chronic conditions. All nuts contain some Omega 3 but almonds, brazil nuts and hazelnuts contain only very small amounts with loads of Omega 6. Walnuts are high in Omega 3’s but, like all nuts are commensurately high in Omega 6’s so if you are concerned about inflammation nuts may not help.
An important question about nuts is weather to eat them raw or cooked. The answer is raw, but if you want to want to cook them it is best to buy them raw and cook them yourself. The reason for this is the unsaturated fats found in nuts have a low melting point. This is the temperature at which the fats start to oxidize. This makes them vulnerable to heat degeneration. Cooking them yourself means you can control the cooking temperature. Lightly roasted at a low temperature is best. Commercially cooked nuts are sometimes fried in oils which rather negates the whole point of nuts as a health food as it destroys all the benefits of the healthy oils reducing them to a high calorie snack.
Freshness is another vital point. Nuts do not keep well at room temperature. This is because unsaturated fats are not very stable and become rancid quickly when exposed to warmth and light. The nutrients break down becoming useless and the oils become oxidized. Oxidized oils form free radicals in the body and damage cells. Nuts should be stored in the freezer and can be eaten frozen. They gain a pleasing chocolate-like crunch. Yum!
When buying nuts from the store make sure they are stored away from sunlight. Chose a store that you know has high turnover. The best and cheapest way I have found is to buy them online. They are between 20% and 50% cheaper than even the specials prices in my local supermarket and I have found that nuts in supermarkets are not always fresh.
My favorite nutty snack is a few almonds poked into slices of banana. Nut butters are a useful way of adding protein to smoothies and powdered nuts add texture and substance to cakes and biscuits – just replace some of the flour with equal quantities of ground nuts. Almonds are traditionally used in some cultures with dates to help women who have problems lactating after giving birth, who knew!
The upshot is nuts are great. They are an excellent source of ‘good’ fats and help mitigate the negative effects of the ‘bad’ fats so common in our diets. They are rich in protein and fibre and contain a host of other goodies. Store them in the freezer as they can get soggy in the fridge and pop a hand full in the kids pockets when they leave the house in the morning. But don’t go nuts. Like all foods, nuts are best in moderate quantities.