Nuts are a whole food. They are permitted on the Paleo Diet and are an easy and handy snack for work or activities. Most of them are also loaded with nutrients and many end up consuming nuts in substantial quantities, either on their own, as dips and butters or flours as ingredients in Paleo ‘treats’. We know that the fact that most nuts were available to our ancestors this is not necessarily a justification for frequent consumption. We need to look further into the composition, levels of toxins and the true nutritive value of nuts and assess their relevance and necessity from there.
We know that nuts are discouraged for those suffering from digestive and autoimmune conditions as well as those who experience systemic reactions when consuming tree nuts, however, even if you are feeling strong and healthy, you may want to avoid or limit the amount and/or frequency you consume nuts.
A few considerations…
- Polyunsaturated fats
Omega-6 is an essential fatty acid and thus needs to be obtained from the foods you eat. This is, however one of the easiest nutrients to consume. Too much of anything can be detrimental, but what defines ‘too much’ is context driven. What your body strives for is a balance between omega-6 and omega-3. Fish and seafood are loaded with omega 3 but how much do you really consume?
Processed foods and even some Paleo foods like nuts, seeds, chicken fat and pork fat contain a considerable amount of omega-6 fatty acids. An omega-6 to omega-3 ratio which is out of balance can lead to excessive inflammation which is the root cause of many non-communicable diseases.
Even walnuts and macadamias, the nuts with the highest omega-3 content have ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the neighborhood of 3:1. Many other nuts contain only trace elements of omega-3. If you are putting great effort into reduce your omega-6 intake by buying grass-fed meat, eating wild-caught fish and pastured eggs and avoiding crop oils, consuming large quantities of nuts can undermine and short-change your efforts. Luckily both coconut and macadamia nuts contain very low amounts of polyunsaturated fats and are a smarter, yet still limited choice
- Phytic Acid
Phytic acid is the chemical component responsible for preventing a nut or seed from sprouting before the ideal conditions are present. In your digestive system, phytic acid can bind to minerals like calcium, iron and magnesium and prevents their absorption. This also means that you the high amount of mineral present in a specific nut (and often a justification for eating said nut) may not actually be digested and utilized by your body. Phytic acid not only binds to or chelates important minerals, it is also able to inhibit enzymes needed to effectively digest your food, including pepsin, necessary for the breakdown of proteins in the stomach, amylase, necessary for the breakdown of starches into glucose and trypsin, necessary for protein digestion in the small intestine.
Nuts that are high in phytic acid, such as almonds, hazelnuts and cashews, can irritate the gut in very sensitive individuals. Yet again, the coconut and macadamia nut come out on top with the lowest amount of phytates of all nuts.
Sprouting raw nuts can decrease the phytic acid content, but it is controversial as to how much. If you are sensitive to nuts, you can try soaking them overnight in water, salt water, and acid (whey, lemon juice, and yogurt) or both followed by thoroughly drying them out in the sun, in a food dehydrator, or in your oven at the lowest temperature.
Lectins are essentially carbohydrate-binding proteins universally present in plants. They protect the species from predation support other immunological functions within plants and animals. Lectins assist in other functions like protein synthesis and delivery in animals. They are sticky molecules, allowing them to effectively bind with sugars but in your gut they can bind the intestinal lining, especially the villi, and create many health issues.
The resulting intestinal damage can reduce the absorption of other nutrients, including minerals and protein as well as alter the delicate balance of organisms present in the microbiome (gut bacteria). Lectins have also been associated with leptin resistance, a primary consideration in obesity and diabetes.
Individuals with established leaky gut issues should steer clear of nuts including macadamia nuts. Coconut, however, is considered supportive for most digestive conditions.
Aflatoxins are carcinogenic chemicals produced by molds which grow on protein-rich foods such as nuts. Allowable levels in food are closely monitored during wholesale trading, but can increase due to poor storage conditions and age of the product.
Peanuts (a legume) contain the highest amounts of these molds however they are present in trace amounts in most nuts. Always buy small amounts from reputable sources, store in cool dry areas and consume within a short time frame to prevent further overgrowth.
- Convenience & Calorie Density
I am a firm believer in the fact that the convenience of our modern world being a huge contributor to our declining health. The more we advance, the more our health declines.
Meat, eggs and seafood need preparation before they are ready to eat. This is one of the obstacles to over consuming these foods. Nuts are edible raw straight from the bag you purchased them from.
Nuts are also relatively inexpensive for the amount of energy they contain and you are more likely to over-eat on less costly food as compared to grass-fed beef, wild Alaskan salmon, caviar, organic produce, pastured eggs and the likes.
If nuts were not delicious on their own then they would not cause much of a problem. You would naturally eat less. Cod liver oil is convenient but also disgusting. You aren’t going to consume an entire bottle. Ever!!
Nuts are very calorie dense foods. If you are struggling to shed fat, it is worth taking a critical eye your nut consumption. They are easy to over eat as their calories come predominantly from which is slow to digest and thus slow to trigger our satiety signals. This can be buffered by buying in-shell nuts that you need to crack before eating. Other than the fact that the work involved in shelling the nuts will slow down their consumption dramatically and typically reduce how much you eat, freshly shelled nuts are delicious and fun!
- Ethical Harvesting & Fair Trade
As consumers it is important to be aware of where our food comes from, how it is grown and the people responsible for bringing it to us. Small crops, sustainably grown with fair trade practices are important factors when sourcing and purchasing your nuts.
Harvesting nuts from forest areas is an alternative to wood extraction which has led to deforestation in some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Many of the poorest people in these regions are now engaged in nut harvesting.
Cashews are the most consumed nut in both Europe and North America. The majority are harvested in India and Vietnam. The nut is exceptionally hard to extract. A cashew has two layers of hard shell between which are caustic substances, cardol and anacardic acid, which can cause vicious burns. Many of the women who work in the cashew industry have permanent damage to their hands from this corrosive liquid, because factories do not routinely provide gloves.
In less affluent countries, nuts are sometimes shelled by drug addicts in forced labour camps, who are beaten and subjected to electric shocks.
In conclusion, it is unfortunate that these incredibly convenient packages of deliciousness may not be your primary or optimal nutrition choice. Unless you have health concerns that clearly indicate complete avoidance of nuts (like an allergy, sensitivity, unresolved inflammation, leaky gut and/or autoimmune disease), you may not need to omit them altogether. Consider, instead, nuts to be an emergency snack food, a special treat, and an alternative way to occasionally give salads and vegetable dishes a little zip and crunch.