Worldly riches are like nuts; many a tooth is broke in cracking them, but never is the stomach filled with eating them.
–Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
If you putter around the low carb world for very long, you’ll see that we have a strange relationship to nuts. On the one hand, you’ve got people using pounds of nut flours every day in their cake-that-aren’t-cakes recipes. On the other hand, you’ve got spear-throwing Paleo types talking about them like they’re almost as bad for you as grain. So what’s the truth?
Well, if you think I can tell you, you’re nuts.
The truth as far as I can make out in my research is that this is not a black and white issue. Nuts have some good things going for them, and they also have some serious issues, especially when eaten in giant amounts.
It’s almost like you weren’t meant to eat nothing but nuts all the time…
Here’s some things you need to know about:
1. Everyone’s favorite, the peanut, is not a nut. It is a legume, like beans. As such it has some problems:
They are high in phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to the minerals in food and makes them less bio-available. While in the small intestine, phytic acid can bind to minerals and take them with it when it makes the..ahem..big exit. Depending on how much you eat, you can get serious mineral deficiencies even while ingesting lots of minerals. We’ll get back to this, because phytic acid is not an unmitigated evil.
They contain a lot of lectins: proteins known to damage the lining of the intestine. Fermenting and soaking does a lot to remove these, but you can be pretty sure that Peter Pan isn’t fermenting and soaking the peanuts in your peanut butter for you. Also, if you’re downing the legumes like mad, there’s a chance this could lead you to leptin-resistance. Leptin-resistance is a pre-diabetic condition that is also closely associated with obesity.
2. A lot of nuts are fairly high in phytic acid. Now phytic acid is in everything, so it’s impossible to avoid completely. It also has some protective effects in small quantities. The problem is to not eat so much that it starts really interfering with your mineral absorption. That means a handful of nuts as an afternoon snack is fine. A half jar of peanut butter for lunch? Not so good.
3. Nuts are also pretty high in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fat. Now you do need some of this fat, but you don’t need a ton. Again, a handful of nuts is ok. A bowl of them is not. And this type of fat is very easily oxidized at high heat, and that is a bad thing. This means that roasted nuts are particularly bad in large quantities. The oil in them has been heated too high and has become dangerous, not healthful. So eat your nuts raw. Ideally, get them raw, soak them overnight and then dry them out at the lowest temp in your oven. This kills off most of the phytic acid, disarms some of the lectins and keeps the fat in safe shape.
4. Nuts tend to be pretty high in carbs for their fat content, meaning they are quite moreish. Once you pop, you can’t stop, and I don’t mean Pringles.
All that being said, it’s also true that nuts have a lot of nutrition.
So what does this all mean?
It means enjoy your nuts–and even your occasional peanut butter–as a garnish in a diet that is heavy on meat and fat. Nuts are a healthful addition to a diet. They are not a substitute for real food. To be honest, I truly believe that you’ll realize this for yourself without any problem if you become used to eating real food. Animal/fowl/fish fats and meat are satisfying on a nourishing level that no plant can ever completely mimic. Even islanders who get their saturated fat from coconuts don’t eat just coconuts. They eat lots of fish, too. If you get yourself used to eating nourishing food, you’re not going to find peanut butter on celery sticks a satisfying meal anymore–no matter how many raisin ants are marching along that log.
It means don’t buy roasted nuts in a can. Get them raw and roast them yourself at low temperatures. Maybe in some butter or coconut oil. With salt and pepper and whatever other herbs or spices you enjoy.
It means nuts have potential to cause problems. Be sensitive to your own issues. You don’t have to eat nuts.
It means that what nut you eat can be important.
- Macadamia nuts. These are king. They are high in fat and pretty low in carbohydrates, very low in phytic acid, decently low in lectins and their fat is mostly monosaturated: safe to eat in larger quantities.
- Cashews are fairly low in phytic acid, too. That’s good. But they’re really high in carbs. There’s a reason they’re everyone’s favorites once you roast them and throw salt on them. Don’t roast them at high heat and do eat them by the small handful, not the bagful.
- Almonds are pretty high in phytic acid. They have some manganese, copper, magnesium, vitamin E and riboflavin, but they also oxidize quite easily in high heat. Don’t eat gobs of these things. And don’t cook with almond flour except for occasional special things. You absolutely shouldn’t be eating almond flour cookies every day.
- Brazil nuts are, interestingly, one of the few excellent sources of selenium available to you. (Pastured egg yolk has some, too). But they are high in phytic acid, so again: watch it.
- Pistachios are the same as the last few. Some good nutrition, but fairly high in phytic acid.
- Pecans are the similar.
- So are most other nuts.
- Except walnuts, which are actually really high in phytic acid compared to other nuts.
So there you go. The condensed answer is that I can’t tell you to not eat them at all, and I wouldn’t want to. Don’t avoid nuts just because they have phytic acid. Everything does. That includes cocoa powder, berries and coconuts! But do avoid large quantities, do be aware that they can cause digestive issues for some people (consider cutting them out completely and then slowly adding them back in if you have problems. That will help you determine if you’re really sensitive to them or not). And definitely avoid eating large amounts (omega 6 to 3 imbalance and too much polyunsaturated fat) and especially of roasted nuts (oxodized polyunsaturated fat.)