Nuts and seeds can be nutritious and satiating, not to mention yummy, components of a healthy diet. Note the emphasis on the word can. I have analyzed enough food diaries to know that nuts and seeds can also be trouble. Well, to be fair, the nuts and seeds have no agency in the equation…the humans consuming them should shoulder the blame.
The crux of the issue is this: although nuts and seeds are nutritionally dense, they are also calorie dense, easy to mindlessly over consume, and too often added to less than healthy products for marketing purposes. (Adding flax to the top of a muffin doesn’t make it healthier – most store bought muffins are basically just miniature cakes…putting a few flax seeds on top does not make them a good nutritional choice.)
I am getting ahead of myself. First, let’s review some of the health benefits of nuts and seeds. Then I will outline how to ensure they help rather than hinder your health quest!
Nuts and Seeds are One of Nature’s Superfoods
Nuts and seeds are jam-packed with all things healthy including protein, fibre, tons of vitamins and minerals (ranging from calcium to magnesium to zinc), and loads of good (healthy) fats.
Generally speaking, healthy fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. An important sub-category of these being certain essential fatty acids (“EFAs”) that cannot be made in your body. You have to eat EFAs, hence the “essential” part of their name. EFAs are grouped into the omega-3 series and the omega-6 series. Omega-3s are especially important; they have been shown to minimize post-exercise muscle soreness, improve delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells, enhance aerobic metabolism, and increase energy levels and stamina. In addition, omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, which means they reduce inflammation caused by overtraining and prevent joint, tendon, and ligament strains. The takeaway here is that all of us, especially those who tax their bodies regularly, should be consuming EFAs. Think fatty fish (salmon, mackerel etc.) and – you guessed it – nuts and seeds. Start being creative! Make a big salad with a dressing that includes flaxseed oil, throw some walnuts in your stir-fry, or make your snack an apple with pumpkin seed butter.
Stay Out Of Trouble
1.Don’t buy into the “more is better” mindset
Don’t be delusional. Portions count. Unless you are trying to gain weight, don’t self-sabotage with the mindset of “nuts are healthy so I can eat as many as I want.”
Let’s use almonds as an example. Almonds contain healthy fats, fibre, vitamin E, magnesium and potassium. So, by all means consume almonds. Your heart and bones will thank you. Just don’t eat them mindlessly as 20 of them are roughly 150 calories. Too often, when we know something is healthy we are less mindful and eat it willy-nilly. I regularly read food diaries that chronicle people unconsciously consuming over a thousand calories of almonds over a day as a few mindless handfuls from an open bowl can add up quickly. The main takeaway being, when consuming anything, but especially calorically dense foods such as nuts and seeds, measure out your portions and consume mindfully. Don’t stand and eat. Don’t watch TV and eat.
2. Mix things up – variety Is the spice of life
Every nut has a different nutritional footprint. For example, a one ounce serving of Brazil nuts has 988% of your Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of selenium. Just one single brazil nut contains 96 mcg, or 175% of the RDI. Most other nuts provide less than 1 mcg of selenium per single nut.
It is important to mix things up. Don’t become too married to one nut, be a player! Try pumpkin seed butter one day, walnut oil on your salad the next, and Brazil nuts and a few berries on some Greek yogurt the day after that.
3. Be mindful of preparation and storage
Consider soaking your nuts and seeds overnight in water. Soaking aids digestion, in large part by helping the fatty acids to become more available.
Nuts and seeds are best kept in closed containers, in plastic bags in the refrigerator, or even in the freezer to prevent rancidity. If left out in containers or bags, make sure to eat the nuts within a month or two.
For the most part, to increase the health impact, stay away from the roasted variety of nuts and seeds. Roasting affects the oils and decreases the vitamin B and mineral content.
4. As with all things, be wary of packaged options
I tease my clients to watch for “wolves in sheep’s clothing. ” Companies take buzzwords and foods and use them to market less-than healthy products. When it comes to nuts and seeds, these are dressed up wolves are nut butters filled with sugar and ingredients like palm oil, and bags of highly salted trail mix containing everything from chocolate chips to added sugar/oil to dried fruit (for the most part, just eat the real fruit).
Really, the way to know what to eat is the lack of a package. As in, broccoli doesn’t need a package because the ingredient is “broccoli.” Same goes for nuts. If you are eating almonds the ingredient should be almonds, not almonds and salt and chocolate chips. If you are having a nut butter the ingredient should be the nut, and maybe a pinch of salt.
Compare Peanut Butter & Co with its 3g of sugar per serving and ingredient list of peanuts, cane sugar, palm fruit oil, and salt to Smuckers Natural PB which has 2g sugar and an ingredient list of peanuts and 1% or less of salt.
Net being, skip processed versions of the real thing. Buy the version with the fewest ingredients, preferably only one ingredient – itself.
5. No One Food Makes or Breaks a Healthy Eating plan
Yes, nuts and seeds are healthy, but they should be considered one part of a healthy, well-rounded, nutritionally dense diet. The goal is not to think “now that I know nuts and seeds are great, everything I eat should include nuts and seeds.” Don’t rationalize eating processed, calorically dense foods (think muffins or sugary cereals) by throwing some flax or chia on top. Adding a food rich in omega-3s doesn’t make up for an otherwise unhealthy choice. The omega rich foods you consume are only a small part of an overall healthy diet.
Don’t use the fact that nuts and seeds are healthy as an excuse to eat foods you know are not the best options. Obviously, have a treat once in a while — just make sure you know the treat is a treat and that the treat is an exception to the rule rather than the norm.
Consider journaling your food. Become aware of the food habits you actually have versus the habits you think you have, as well as the sneaky foods that seem healthy but that end up sabotaging progress. Less obvious culprits tend to slide under the radar and inadvertently sabotage progress. A gluten free flax cookie is still a cookie.
Become mindful of what, how, and why you eat, and remember, no matter what you are eating, portion control is key. Don’t stand at a party or at your kitchen counter and snack mindlessly. Sit down and enjoy what you are eating. If you decide to have an amazing piece of cake, great. Enjoy your treat. Just have one small serving, not seven.