It’s funny, people often tease vegetarians because they eat “rabbit-food” or seem to have so little in the way of food choices. Yet most people, including vegetarians eat very little in the way of nuts and seeds.
Variety In Nuts and Seeds
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, nuts and seeds can add great variety and nourishment to your meals. Of all the protein sources, other than dairy, they are really easy and quick to prepare. When you think about it, from a little nut or seed, an entire plant or even a tree will spring forth. They have quite the potential within them. They also taste delicious. When you think of their power and their flavor, it’s strange that people in our society eat so little of them. They are thought of as a mere snack food. Even in Canada, they charge GST on salted nuts and seeds — a sales tax reserved for “junk food.”
Our ancestors gave nuts and seeds a prominent place in their meals. They are a great source of protein but they really have taken a backseat to meat in our modern culture. Now, I’m not hinting that you become a vegetarian. All I’m suggesting is that you try replacing meat with nuts or seeds for a few meals each week. It’ll provide many benefits for your health (and your wallet), which I’ll share with you in a minute. Even if you’re a vegan and already use nuts and seeds in your diet this article is going to be a treat.
But Wait… Don’t Nuts Make People Fat?
Nuts have been given a bad reputation because of their high fat content. Yes, they contain plenty of fat – plenty of healthy fat. Most nutritionists would agree that there is nothing wrong with a moderate amount of good fat in your diet. Some would even say a liberal amount is ideal.
Unlike sugar, fat absorbs very slowly, giving you sustained energy and time to burn it off. Sugar and starches, however, burn much quicker. However, the irony is that if they are not used immediately, they usually get turned into fat. The modern fad of eating high-carb, low-fat food may partly explain why we face such an obesity epidemic.
Think of it this way: sugar and carbs burn like paper, protein burns like wood, and fat burns like coal.
Okay, But What About Cholesterol?
There are some nutty myths flying around. Here’s one that I must dispel immediately. Seeds and nuts do not contain any cholesterol. Only foods that come from animals have significant amounts of cholesterol (e.g. meat, eggs and dairy).
First, you should be aware there really is no evidence supporting the THEORY that cholesterol is even harmful, in and of itself. High cholesterol is likely just a “warning signal” that other things are getting out of balance in your body. Cholesterol is an antioxidant, so it may become elevated in reaction to a toxic load in your body.
And remember that cholesterol is ESSENTIAL for the proper functioning of your body. Limiting it may only cause problems. Cholesterol insulates your nerves and adds rigidity to cell membranes. It helps stabilize your body temperature and is a building block for vitamin D. Without cholesterol we can’t produce bile which is required to digest fat. It also produces hormones that help…no, that create libido!
That cholesterol is bad for you was a theory that has never been proven, yet has been repeated so many times it is touted as fact.. Of course, if you’re eating too many nuts, like any other high calorie food, it can cause your body to store fat. So as long you’re not downing handfuls and handfuls of nuts all day long, you really don’t have to worry. Eat a balanced diet, watch your serving amounts and don’t fret.
12 Good Reasons To Go Nuts
- Essential Fatty Acids:
They contain high amounts of linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is the most unsaturated of all oils – making it the most valuable and the easiest to absorb. It can be transformed by your body into any of the essential fatty acids we require. Yes, eating plenty of nuts and seeds can provide you with all the EFAs your body needs.
Nuts and seeds are a great source of fiber that help keep you regular (unlike animal proteins, which have no fiber).
Most nuts and seeds are rich sources of protein. One cup of almonds, for example, has more protein than three glasses of milk. Exceptions include macadamia nuts and coconuts which contain more fat than protein. Darn. Here I am in Maui with these nuts hanging from trees! So, I eat them for dessert instead of dinner.
Seeds and nuts are a magnesium storehouse. And, as you know, without enough magnesium your body will have trouble relaxing and you will not be able to properly absorb other nutrients.
Many nuts and seeds (such as almonds and sesame) are rich sources of calcium which are absorbed more easily than from dairy products or most calcium supplements and help prevent osteoporosis.
- Prostate Health:
Nuts and seeds are a general storehouse of other essential minerals like zinc (particularly from pumpkin seeds) which help support prostate health.
Brazil nuts are high in selenium which is a necessary mineral for the production of glutathione – one of the body’s most important antioxidants.
An excellent vegetarian source of iron – especially cashews.
Nuts, such as hazelnuts, are a great source of thiamine (which supports energy levels and can help regulate appetite) and vitamin B6 (which aids in protein absorption and digestion).
- Weight Control:
Coconuts have been shown to help maintain normal weight and build your immune system (fighting bacteria, viruses and yeast overgrowth) with their easily digestible medium chain fatty acids (MCFA).
- Omega–3: Chia Seeds:
(Yes, “the pet that grows”) were a staple in the Aztec and Mayan diets. They are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, much like flax seed – but less prone to rancidity.
Why Nuts and Seeds Give People Gas
Nature designed nuts and seeds to withstand a lot of abuse until they found fertile soil in which to grow. In their whole form they are quite hard and contain enzymes inhibitors that make them difficult to digest.
This adaptation is believed to have developed so that nuts and seeds could be consumed by animals, transported to a new location and then excreted, whole. The result was that they’d be left on the ground in a pile of fresh manure – the perfect fertilizer. Then when the rains fell, the seeds would begin to germinate and eventually sprout.
Chewing on raw nuts or seeds puts a lot of pressure on your teeth and your gut to break them down. They were designed to withstand the gastrointestinal system of a foraging bear – for Pete’s sake! And most people don’t chew them enough. Even if you chew them properly, they require large amounts of enzymes and gastric juices – putting a strain on your pancreas and your stomach. For the most part they end up being swallowed in pieces too large to be absorbed. Only the outside gets broken down while the rest must make a long journey through your intestinal tract.
On the way, bacteria and yeast have a grand time consuming those undigested bits and expanding their colony size. Bacteria and yeast during their life cycle end up excreting toxins and gas that cause discomfort and may even damage the walls of your intestines or lead to leaky gut.
So, between the inhibitors and the hardness… nuts and seeds can be nearly impossible for some people to properly digest and absorb. They end up causing gas and not providing much protein or fat – just plenty of wind. That may be okay if you’re munching on trail mix out in the wild – but not very sociable for day-to-day living. Wait a minute! Here I’m telling you the wonders of nuts and seeds but now I’m saying they are too hard on your teeth and won’t digest. What gives?
Making Nuts & Seeds Easy To Digest
- Soaking Strategy
The first strategy is to soak your seeds. Think back to how things work out in nature. Once the seed or nut finds fertile ground and rain falls – it has found ideal conditions for growing a tree (or a vine). The water flushes away the enzyme inhibitors so that it can begin to germinate. Soaking nuts and seeds in salt water for 8 to 24 hours will produce the same effect. It’ll even help nuts and seeds release their own natural enzymes that will help you digest them. So your trail mix goes from being extremely difficult to digest to self–digesting.
Here are the directions.
- Triple rinse the nuts or seeds – usually by covering them with water and then draining them through a sieve, three times.
- Add them to a jar or other container with a lid.
- Cover well with filtered water.
- Add 1-2 drops of grapefruit seed extract to kill mold or parasites (optional).
- Add a pinch of salt (this helps de–activate the inhibitors and also prevents mold or parasites).
- Cover and leave at room temperature for 8–24 hours.
- Drain water. Not only will they be easier to chew and digest – they’ll taste better, too. They’ll become larger, softer and sweeter.
Another way to get rid of enzyme inhibitors is to roast your nuts and seeds. Dry roasting (which means you don’t add oil) is fine, but then you may want to add some healthy oils to your roasted nuts to make up for the dryness. A little salt is also fine and will aid digestion. Eat them as a healthy snack. For added benefit, soak your nuts, dry them, and then add oil before roasting.
Here are the directions.
- Coat 1 cup of nuts with 1 TBSP of oil.
- Spread on a cookie tray.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Roast for about 10 min.
- Stir several times until lightly browned and aromatic.
Adding To Other Recipes
• Soups and Stew:
Add ground nuts to vegetable stews or soups, cooking them for a few minutes after all the other ingredients are nearly done. This makes for a very tasty base and produces a very creamy, protein-rich dish. While not common in North America, it is well–liked in many other countries.
• Nut Loafs (or Nut Roasts):
Mix ground nuts or seeds with vegetables and/or grains. Bake them in a bread pan. Combined with onions and savory herbs these “nut roasts” can be quite tasty and compete for attention with the turkey at any holiday feast.
Italians actually make many pasta sauces out of nuts – especially hazelnut and cashew. Simply adding water, salt and a little lemon juice to a nut butter can make an impressive, high protein sauce you can use instead of cheese with penne. Or, drizzle over cooked vegetables to make them taste quite exceptional.
- Grinding & Puréeing Butters and Pâtés
Chew well. Even if you soak or roast your nuts, they still require a lot of chewing. If you’re watching a movie or reading a good book and have the time, great. As long as they are as fine as paste when you swallow them, you should be okay.
But, a more practical solution is to either grind or purée them in the following ways:
• Nut Butters:
Commercially prepared nut butters are one answer – but you need to make sure they are roasted. Raw nut butters will still have inhibitors in place (unless they say they are soaked or “sprouted” raw nuts). So always make sure you buy roasted nut butters unless you plan on cooking them into soups or nut loafs. Otherwise, it’s pretty impossible to soak nut butters (especially if you want to put them on your toast)!
You can also just purée your soaked nuts in a smoothie with fruits. This can make it a bit thick but quite tasty. Soaked cashews puréed with coconut milk, banana and mango could compete with vanilla ice cream any day.
• Nut Pâté:
Now, if you prefer to eat your nuts soaked and raw, you can purée them after soaking. I love nut pâté, where you soak the nuts or seeds and then add garlic and spices and purée everything into a creamy dip or filler for wraps. Or thin it out a little to make dressing for a vegetable or pasta salad. It’s quite versatile and by adding garlic you get several days fridge life out of it.
Nut Pâté Recipe
Macadamia nut pâté became my favorite food when we moved to Maui. Here’s a recipe that you can play with and enjoy.
2 cups pumpkin or sunflower seeds, almonds, cashew or macadamia nuts
3-4 cloves garlic
1 rounded teaspoon of sea salt
4-6 ounces of lemon juice
2-4 ounces of water
You can add onion, a teaspoon of turmeric, ginger or basil to change the color, taste and texture.
- Grind nuts/seeds. Set aside. Blend other ingredients in food processor until smooth. Blend in ground nuts/seeds. Mac nuts are so soft, they don’t really need to be soaked.
- For a more digestible version, soak seeds for 4 hours or nuts for 8 hours. Add a drop of grapefruit seed extract to kill off any mold or bacteria. Discard soaking liquid and rinse.
- Spread 2 tablespoons of pâté on collard leaves, romaine lettuce or nori sushi sheets. Add sliced avocado, basil, cilantro, green onions, pickles, tomatoes and roll into a delicious wrap.
This recipe was adapted from Shannon Leone’s book, “Eat for Beauty, Health and Pleasure”. With a VitaMix or blender of your choice, you can put lemon juice and water in the blender along with the garlic and salt, then add the nuts and they will blend into an amazingly delicious creamy concoction.
Purchasing The Best One
The Chia Exception
Chia seeds can be left whole and will produce a gel-like bulking action to help keep your bowels regular. I still recommend you soak them, however.
I know, I know, I tell you to buy organic everything. But, buying organic nuts is even more important than buying organic vegetables. If pesticides are used on nuts, it’s a sign that a lot of mold is present in the fields. That mold will probably persist. This is most true for peanuts, which I’ll discuss next…
Yes, you’re right, peanuts really aren’t a nut. They’re a legume. But, we eat them like nuts, so it’s important to talk about them here. They share many of the benefits of nuts and seeds, plus they are a wonderful source of resveratrol (move over red wine!) the “celebrity nutrient” that supports healthy heart function.
Unless you are allergic, there is nothing wrong with peanuts, in and of themselves. In fact, they are an extremely healthy and tasty food. You just want to make sure you are getting the right kind of peanuts.
The growing conditions in northern regions like the northern United States and Canada are too moist for peanuts – which require ultra-dry conditions or they become moldy. They are simply not meant to be grown in such climates. To combat the mold, extra antifungal pesticides are used. So you end up with moldy nuts covered with chemicals. On top of that, they are often coated with hydrogenated oils, sugar and cheap salt. Even worse is when manufacturers turn peanuts into commercial peanut butter with added corn syrup and soy oil.
Instead, purchase only organic peanuts. The fact that they are organic helps ensure they aren’t moldy. But don’t stop there, make sure they were grown in a dry climate like the southern United States, Mexico or South America. I recommend you do not buy the non–organic versions.
A good way to save money is to order large quantities directly from a local distributor in your own country) and receive a bulk discount. This way you’ll save money and be stocked up.
In Ayurveda they recommend soaking almonds overnight then snapping the skins off. Ayurveda believes the skins are too difficult to digest and may cause heart problems.
Instead of blanching the almonds, which would destroy important enzymes in the boiling process, you can pinch soaked almonds between your finger and thumb they’ll pop right out of their skins. It’s almost as if they were designed that way. The almonds can then be easily sliced and used as a topping for a variety of dishes. Ayurveda recommends you consume at least 10–20 a day.
Make it Happen
- Buy only organic, dry roasted nut butters.
- And/or grind nuts and seeds and cook them into soups, stews and nut loafs.
- And/or soak nuts and seeds for at least 24 hours in salt water. Purée them into sauce or
pâtés or just eat them raw.
Questions and Answers
What if I soaked some nuts or seeds and then wasn’t able to eat them?
You can drain the water and use new water and soak them again for another 24 hours. After that, store them in the fridge without water in an airtight container.
I find it hard to remember to soak nuts and seeds in advance. Any tips?
If you’re eating them daily the best thing may be to just soak the next batch when you’re eating the last batch. For example, if you eat 20 soaked almonds each morning, as soon as you remove the last 20 almonds from the soaking jar, immediately soak the next batch. Don’t leave it for later. This also allows for a full 24 hours of soaking time.
Sunflower seed oil is high in linoleic acid. Why can’t I just use sunflower seed oil and get all my linoleic acid that way?
You get much more from solid, whole foods instead of the stripped down, processed version. We depend far too much on supplements and processed foods instead of eating the whole food.
Are nut butters “with added calcium” any good?
Check the label. If it says “calcium carbonate” don’t bother. Calcium carbonate doesn’t absorb and can harm your kidneys and arteries. If you want calcium, eat almond or sesame butter (tahini).