When you need a quick snack, there’s nothing more convenient than a handful of almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds—no mess, no fuss. And who doesn’t love nuts and seeds in salads, smoothies, and desserts?
What’s more, nuts and seeds are a super-concentrated form of nutrition. After all, they contain all of the nutrients that Mother Nature needs to grow an entire plant! That’s a lot of power squeezed into a tiny package.
However, no food is perfect, and that includes nuts and seeds. So today, I’ll tell you why they’re a great choice for most people but not for everyone—and why the key to getting the most benefit from these little babies is to eat them the right way.
(One quick note: When I talk about nuts here, I’m referring to tree nuts—walnuts, almonds, and so on—but not peanuts, which are legumes. That’s a topic for a different post someday.)
The good news about nuts and seeds
Because they’re so rich in nutrients, it’s no surprise that nuts and seeds have some powerful health benefits. Here’s a sampling of the research showing the good things these little powerhouses can do for you:
- They can help you stay slim. One large study showed that people who regularly eat nuts have a lower body mass index, a smaller waist circumference, and a lower weight than those who avoid them. Another study found that eating chia seeds can promote weight loss in people who are overweight or obese and have diabetes.
- They can help you ward off diabetes. Research reveals that nuts can play a role in reversing metabolic syndrome—the first step on the road to diabetes—while pumpkin seeds can help to control your blood sugar.
- They may help you avoid cancer. In particular, research suggests that tree nuts can help protect against colorectal cancer.
- They can lower your blood pressure. Research shows that both tree nuts and flax seeds can help you fight hypertension.
- They can protect your heart. According to a large meta-study, eating tree nuts can improve your cholesterol and triglycerides, lowering your risk for heart disease.
- They may help you live longer. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed data from more than 70,000 women and 40,000 men and concluded that “the frequency of nut consumption was inversely associated with total and cause-specific mortality, independently of other predictors of death.”
Those are some pretty impressive findings, and they may make you want to wolf down a ton of nuts or seeds right away. But before you go too crazy, I have a few cautions for you.
The downsides to nuts and seeds
While they’re a very healthy food for most people, nuts and seeds do have some drawbacks—and these may make them a bad choice for you.
The first issue with nuts and seeds is that they contain two substances that can potentially cause problems for you if you eat these foods in large quantities or you have autoimmune issues or gut problems:
- Lectins. These are low-level toxins that plants use to ward off pests. The biggest sources of lectins include grains, legumes, and dairy, but nuts and seeds can give you a significant dose of them as well. Lectins can bind with the lining of the small intestine, potentially causing damage leading to a “leaky gut.”
- Phytic acid. This substance binds to minerals, keeping your intestine from absorbing them. In addition, it inhibits several digestive enzymes needed to break down starch and proteins. (On the upside, phytic acid may actually help to fight cancer, making it a bad guy/good guy.)
Another thing to know is that nuts are one of the world’s most allergenic foods. While people with severe nut allergies experience unmistakable or even fatal symptoms, you may not connect the dots if your symptoms are milder.
Also, nuts (other than a few types, like macadamia nuts) are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory, and lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3s. However, nuts are loaded with other nutrients that appear to balance this out, making them anti-inflammatory overall.
Finally, nuts are easy to overdo. In fact, when a dieter’s weight loss starts to slow and I look for clues as to why it’s happening, the most common culprit turns out to be nuts.
Getting the benefits without the risks
As with most healthy foods, the trick with nuts and seeds is to eat them wisely. To get all their benefits without suffering any bad effects, here are some good general rules:
- Eat nuts and seeds in moderation. One closed handful a day will give you lots of nutrients without overloading you with anti-nutrients or calories.
- Listen to your body. If you develop digestive problems after eating nuts or seeds, or you experience symptoms like a runny nose, itchy eyes, or a stuffy chest, that may be a big clue that your body can’t handle them well. Repeat your nut or seed challenge, and see if you get the same results. If so, it’s a good idea to give some or all of these foods a pass.
- If you have an autoimmune condition, you probably should limit nuts and seeds or remove them from your diet entirely.
- Consider soaking or sprouting. Soaking nuts or seeds overnight in salty water will remove most of the phytic acid. (You can dry them out the next day in an oven set to the lowest possible temperature.) You can also sprout nuts and seeds, which reduces their lectin content, increases the availability of their nutrients, and makes them easier to digest.
- Don’t go too crazy over nut flours. It’s fun to bake with these flours, but do this occasionally—not frequently.
- If you buy nuts in bulk, freeze them to keep them from losing nutrients and going rancid.
- If possible, buy organic nuts and seeds.
And here’s another tip: Rotate your nuts and seeds. While nuts and seeds are all rich in nutrients, they’re rich in different nutrients. For instance:
- Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds are rich in selenium, which does everything from reducing your cancer risk to fighting viruses.
- Flax seeds contain lignans that help protect against breast and prostate cancer.
- Pumpkin seeds provide a good dose of zinc, a mineral your immune system needs to function optimally.
- Pecans have lots of manganese (crucial for bone health) and copper (needed for healthy bones and tissues).
- Walnuts contain a good supply of heart-healthy alpha linoleic acid, and they have more antioxidants than any other nut. Pecans and hazelnuts, too, are loaded with antioxidants.
- Chia seeds and flax seeds are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Pistachios are rich in l-arginine, a precursor to nitric oxide—and nitric oxide, in turn, helps prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Almonds provide lots of magnesium, which helps prevent sudden heart attacks.
- Macadamia nuts are rich in the same healthy fatty acids found in olive oil.
So don’t just stick with one or two types of these healthy little foods. The more different types of nuts and seeds you incorporate into your diet, the more healing nutrients you’ll feed your cells. Just remember that like any good thing, nuts are best enjoyed in moderation—so keep that closed-handful-per-day rule firmly in mind!
Keep Thinking Big and Living Bold!