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If you ever find yourself hungry and at a loss for a healthy snack… a handful ofraw nuts or seeds is virtually always a good choice. They’re easy to travel with (stash a small bag in your purse or desk drawer at work) and they keep well at home in your fridge (nuts and seeds go rancid easily, so storing them in the refrigerator or freezer helps).
You can feast on whichever nuts and seeds appeal to you most, although some are arguably healthier than others. First, be sure to note that peanuts are not included in this list, as they’re not nuts.
The nuts that follow are tree nuts, i.e. they grow on trees. Peanuts actually grow underground and, despite their name, are actually legumes – and not one I recommend eating.
Fortunately, there are plenty of healthy nuts and seeds to choose from, so even without peanuts you’ll have a wide variety at your disposal.
The Best Nuts and Seeds
Macadamia nuts have the highest fat and lowest protein and carb content of any nut, and they also happen to be one of my favorites. Raw macadamia nuts also contain high amounts of vitamin B1, magnesium, and manganese.
Just one serving of macadamia nuts net 58 percent of what you need in manganese, and 23 percent of the recommended daily value of thiamin. Moreover, about 60 percent of the fatty acid in macadamia is the monounsaturated fat oleic acid. This is about the level found in olives, which are well known for their health benefits.
Pecans contain more than 19 vitamins and minerals, and research has shown they may help lower LDL cholesterol and promote healthy arteries.
One of my favorite treats is candied pecans in a salad. (I know they have sugar, but the trace amount that’s found in a few teaspoons of chopped pecans is not going to cause a major problem provided you’re eating a healthy whole food diet the rest of the time).
Pecans are a close second to macadamia nuts on the fat and protein scale, and they also contain anti-inflammatory magnesium, heart healthy oleic acid, phenolic antioxidants, and immune-boosting manganese.
One-quarter cup of walnuts provides more than 100 percent of the daily-recommended value of anti-inflammatory plant-based omega-3 fats, along with high amounts of copper, manganese, molybdenum, and biotin.
They also contain the amino acid l-arginine, which offers multiple vascular benefits to people with heart disease, or those who have increased risk for heart disease due to multiple cardiac risk factors.
Walnuts contain antioxidants that are so powerful at free-radical scavenging that researchers called them “remarkable,”1 and research has shown that walnut polyphenols may help prevent chemically-induced liver damage.2
Research even shows that two handfuls a day of walnuts may help prevent both prostate and breast cancer and may curb tumor growth. It can also support brain health, including increasing inferential reasoning in young adults.3
The outermost layer of a shelled walnut – the whitish, flaky (or sometimes waxy) part – has a bitter flavor, but resist the urge to remove it. It’s thought that up to 90 percent of the antioxidants in walnuts are found in the skin, making it one of the healthiest parts to consume.4
Like walnuts, one of the healthiest aspects of almonds appears to be their skins, as they are rich in antioxidants including phenols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, which are typically associated with vegetables and fruits.
They’re also notably beneficial for your heart health. A study in the journalCirculation found people with abnormally high level of lipids, such as cholesterol, in their blood were able to significantly reduce their risk factors for coronary heart disease by snacking on whole almonds (those who snacked on whole-wheat muffins received no such benefit).6
Do be careful not to overeat almonds, however, as they are high in protein – nearly one gram per almond.
Brazil nuts offer many of the same benefits of other nuts – healthy fats,antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, they’re most notable for being an excellent source of organic selenium, a powerful antioxidant-boosting mineral that may be beneficial for the prevention of cancer.
They also have a beneficial high fat and low protein content, behind only macadamias and pecans.
Pistachios are high in lutein, beta-carotene, and gamma-tocopherol (vitamin E) compared to other nuts. Eating one or two servings of pistachios a day has been shown, in fact, to increase blood levels of antioxidants and, in turn, lower oxidized LDL cholesterol in people with elevated levels.7
Past research has also shown that diets containing pistachios reduce systolic blood pressure and vascular responses to stress in adults with high cholesterol.8 They’re also useful for maintaining a healthy weight (as are most nuts).
People who ate pistachios for 24 weeks lost an average of 0.7 inches from their waists, reduced cholesterol by 15 points, improved their blood sugar, and lowered inflammation.9
Further, they’re an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which tend to “preferentially target belly fat,” according to the study’s lead researcher.10
Be aware that most pistachios are bleached, so to avoid potentially harmful residues it’s important to look for organic pistachios (see the section on organic nuts below for more details). Pistachios are also one of the higher protein nuts, so they should be eaten in moderation.
With a wide variety of nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein, and zinc, pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses wrapped up in a very small package.
They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants, which can give your health an added boost.
Pumpkin seeds have long been valued as an important natural food for men’s health. This is in part because of their high zinc content, which is important for prostate health (where it is found in the highest concentrations in the body).
This is also because pumpkin seed extracts and oils may play a role in treating benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH, or enlarged prostate).
Animal studies even suggest that pumpkin seeds may help improve insulin regulation and help prevent diabetic complications by decreasing oxidative stress.11
Sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E, copper, B vitamins, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Sunflower seeds also contain one of the highest levels of phytosterols of commonly consumed nuts and seeds. Phytosterols are beneficial for your heart health and immune system, and may help lower cancer risk as well.12
Be Careful Not to Eat Too Many Nuts…
Most nuts should be eaten in moderation, but not because they’re high in fat or calories. It’s the high protein content that you need to watch out for, especially in nuts like almonds and pistachios. Most Americans consume three to five times more protein than they need, along with excessive starchy carbs and not enough healthy fats. Excess dietary protein can lead to elevated blood sugar, weight gain, kidney stress, leaching of bone minerals, and stimulation of cancer cells, and it’s easy to overdo it if you eat a few handfuls of high-protein nuts.
A more ideal protein intake is likely around one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, which for most is 40 to 70 grams a day. This is why my favorite nuts are those that are lowest in protein and highest in fat, including macadamia nuts and pecans.
Nuts Can Help You Lose Weight
Adding healthy amounts of nuts to your diet can help you to maintain your ideal weight over time, contrary to the popular opinion that nuts are “fattening.” In one review of 31 trials, those whose diets included extra nuts or nuts substituted for other foods lost about 1.4 extra pounds and half an inch from their waists.13
Research presented at the 6th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition also highlighted nuts’ role in helping to reduce your risk of obesity. As reported in The Epoch Times:14
“[Purdue University’s Professor of Foods and Nutrition Dr. Richard] Mattes claims that nuts can actually suppress both the appetite and the brain’s desire for food, which can lead people to overeat even when they’re full. Plus they’re energy-packed, which can impact the way your body adjusts your intake of calories throughout the day. Mattes suggested that a 100-calorie serving of nuts in the morning could decrease your calorie consumption by as much as 75 calories later in the day. This could be due to the filling nature of nuts, but more research is needed on this particular point.”
Why It’s Important to Choose Organic Nuts
You can’t really go wrong when choosing nuts to eat, as long as you pay attention to quality. By this I mean look for nuts that are organic and raw, not irradiated, pasteurized, or coated in sugar. You’ll also want to avoid bleached nuts, which is a common practice with pistachios, an extremely perishable, fragile crop. Once harvested, they must be processed within 24 hours or else tannins released from the nut’s hull can lead to staining on the shell. Stained pistachios can no longer be sold in-shell, and must be removed and sold as nutmeats (generally for a lower profit).
You may have seen red or green dyed pistachios on the market, and this is often done to hide such staining. Naturally pistachio shells are light beige in color, but in some areas, especially China, an even lighter, virtually white shell is thought to indicate cleanliness and freshness. To get this white shell, 90 percent of the pistachios sold in the Chinese market have been bleached, even though it is against China’s Food Safety Laws.15
Aside from the potential for bleach residues to remain on the nuts, bleaching has been shown to destroy important phytochemicals in pistachio skins, with researchers noting that the “destruction of bioactive phenolics in pistachio skins [from bleaching] may negatively impact the potential health benefits arising from pistachio consumption.”16
California pistachio shells are not bleached, however once hulled they may be soaked in a “bath” of water and antimicrobial chemicals. The most commonly used antimicrobial is hypochlorous acid (bleach).17 To avoid nuts that have been treated with antimicrobials and pesticides, choose organic varieties. Also, if you choose to purchase nuts or seeds from a bulk bin, make sure they smell fresh – not musty, spoiled, or stale, which could indicate rancidity or the presence of fungal mycotoxins.
Raw Nuts and Seeds Are Best
Roasted nuts are tasty… but roasting has been found to damage nutrients in nuts, including decreasing the availability of beneficial fatty acids and amino acids.18 A better option would be nuts that are hot-air dried at temperatures of 180 degrees F or less, which should help to minimize any potential heat-related damage. An even better option is to consume nuts raw, and soak them first for eight to 12 hours. Phytic acid, which is found in the coatings of nuts and seeds, is an “anti-nutrient” responsible for leeching vital nutrients from your body.
Soaking nuts will help to get rid of the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, which can interfere with the function of your own digestive and metabolic enzymes, in the nuts. To make them more palatable, you can use a dehydrator to improve the texture. Enzyme inhibitors in nuts (and seeds) help protect the nut as it grows, helping to decrease enzyme activity and prevent premature sprouting.
When nuts are soaked, the germination process begins, allowing the enzyme inhibitors to be deactivated and increasing the nutrition of the nut significantly, as well as making them much easier to digest.
One exception is with macadamia nuts (and other white nuts), which have only negligible amounts of enzyme inhibitors, so soaking is not as necessary. If you prefer to eat nuts and seeds roasted, do so yourself so you can control the roasting temperature and time. Raw pumpkin seeds, for instance, can be roasted on a low heat setting in your oven (no more than 170 degrees F or 75 degrees Celsius), sprinkled with Himalayan or other natural salt, for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find truly raw nuts in the US. For instance, pasteurized almonds sold in North America can still be labeled “raw” even though they’ve been subjected to one of the following pasteurization methods:
- Oil roasting, dry roasting, or blanching
- Steam processing
- Propylene Oxide (PPO) treatment (PPO is a highly toxic flammable chemical compound, once used as a racing fuel before it was prohibited for safety reasons)
There are generally no truly “raw” almonds sold in North America, so don’t be misled. It is possible to purchase raw almonds in the US, but it has to be done very carefully from vendors selling small quantities that have a waiver from the pasteurization requirement. The key is to find a company with the waiver.