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.
Because they’re so rich in nutrients, it’s no surprise that nuts and seeds have some powerful health benefits:
- They can help you stay slim. People who regularly eat nuts have a lower body mass index, a smaller waist circumference, and a lower weight than those who avoid them. 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. 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.”
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:
1. 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.”
2. 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 down, the most common culprit turns out to be nuts.
Available blanched, roasted, sliced, whole, chopped and more, this nut is a great choice for sweet and savory cooking. It’s also plenty nutritious, with a good dose of protein, calcium, folic acid and vitamin E.
Related to the mango, pistachio and poison ivy. The shells are poisonous, so extreme care is taken in shelling and cleaning these rich, buttery nuts. Full of protein, vitamin A and carbohydrates.
Also known as the filbert, this favorite nut for baking is also great paired with vegetables in savory dishes. Low in fat (for a nut) but high in fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin E. Also great as a nut butter.
Available in the shell or out, salted or not, peanuts are not actually nuts at all, but legumes. They’re low in carbs but high in fat, vitamins B and E and protein.
Available year-round, autumn is the peak season for this native American nut. It’s part of the hickory family and has buttery, rich nutmeat. Some say the flavor is akin to the walnut’s, but sweeter. High in fat, calcium, zinc and vitamins A, B and E.
Though English walnuts are the most common variety, there are many others, including some with very thin shells and others that range in size from large to baby. High in fat, potassium, magnesium, protein and vitamin E. For optimal freshness, leave them in their shells until ready to use.
The seeds from pine trees. And because the seeds are found inside the pine cone, the extraction process is rather involved and results in the often high price of these nuts. Also called pignoli, they’re protein-rich and a key ingredient in pesto.
Inside its hard, beige shell is a pale-green nut with a delicate, sweet flavor that’s prized in cuisines the world over. At home in both sweet and savory cooking, the pistachio is also a good source of calcium and iron.
Also called pepitas, these seeds are a frequent ingredient in Mexican cooking and work well in both sweet and savory cooking. Roasted and lightly salted, the seeds have a delicate, slightly sweet flavor. Rich in protein, zinc and iron.
Tiny, flat and in colors ranging from ivory to black, these seeds are great in both sweet and savory dishes. They can be turned into a paste — tahini — which is a main ingredient in hummus. And the toasted seeds become a flavorful finishing oil (imparting a distinctly Asian flavor). Good source of protein and calcium.
Enjoy these delicious seeds dried or roasted, salted or not. Just be sure to remove their hard black-and-white striped shells before eating. Native Americans have been cultivating the iron-rich seeds for more than 2,000 years.