I wrote this blog post for Wise Roots Nutrition, where I’m currently interning.
Nuts are the darling of health-conscious folks everywhere. Do yoga? You eat nuts. Use natural skincare products? You eat nuts. Eat organic? You eat organic nuts.
Here’s the good news: nuts are a dense source of nutrients. Brazil nuts are high in selenium. Almonds are a good source of vitamin E, and walnuts provide you with copper and manganese. Nuts are high in fat, high in protein, and high in fiber.
And the bad: Nuts may be contributing to excess inflammation in your body, opening you up to mineral deficiencies, and prematurely aging your skin.
Have you ever heard of a thing called “phytic acid?” It’s a plant’s storage form of phosphorous and binds to minerals like zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium, preventing their absorption. This means that if you eat foods high in phytic acid along with foods rich in any of the above minerals, you’re not going to be able to absorb the minerals. Too much phytic acid in your diet can lead to mineral deficiencies.
Can you guess one food that is extremely high in phytic acid?
Sorry, Cheese Doodles aren’t considered a food. Guess again.
Pop Rocks? Again not a food, just pure magic. One more guess…
That’s right – nuts!
A couple handfuls of almonds – about 3 ounces – contain 1200-1400 milligrams of phytic acid. Walnuts come in at 982 mg, and Brazil nuts take the cake (and all the minerals in it) with 1719 mg of phytic acid in 3 ounces.
There’s some debate over how much phytic acid humans can tolerate, but most sources say less than 800 mg per day. A seemingly modest snack of trail mix will push you over the limit.
Some phytic acid can be broken down by soaking and roasting the nuts. If you soak raw nuts in water for 18 hours, use a dehydrator or very low temperature oven to dehydrate them, and then roast or cook them, they phytic acid levels will be reduced. Further, consuming 25 mg ofvitamin C at the same time you eat nuts has been shown to counter the phytic acid.
Also keep in mind that nut butters are almost never made from soaked nuts, so their phytic acid content will be high – and trying to soak almond butter? Gross! (But you can get soaked nut butter here that you’ll actually want to eat.)
Aging and Inflammation
It sounds like a hippie rock band, but omega 6 is actually a type of polyunsaturated fat. It’s an essential fatty acid, which means our bodies can’t make it and we have to get it from food. But too much omega 6 can lead to excess inflammation – which can promote disease, premature aging, and wrinkles. Not sure how much omega 6 fats you’re taking in? Well, the average American eats about 20 times more omega 6 than is ideal! You’ll find high levels of omega 6 fats in wheat, corn, soy, poultry and pork, sunflower and sesame seeds, and vegetable oils. Unfortunately, they’re also found in abundance in nuts.
Ideally, you want to limit your intake of omega 6 fats to about 3% of calories, so about 4-7 gramsper day.
Pop Quiz: What’s small, crunchy and contains a whopping 10 grams of omega 6?
Here’s a hint: it looks like a wrinkle.
Answer: One ounce of walnuts.
In fact, nuts are one of the highest sources of omega 6 fats. Twenty three almonds, the amount in an ounce, contain 3.5 grams of omega 6. And an ounce of pecans contains 6.4 grams. Macadamia nuts are the lone exception, with only trace amounts of omega 6.
What that means is if you eat a modest three ounces of mixed nuts, you could be taking in 20 grams of omega 6 – about triple the daily maximum, and tipping your body towards an inflammatory state. This doesn’t even take into account the omega 6 you’re ingesting from other foods like corn, wheat, poultry, soy and cooking oil.
While counting calories is best left in the 1990s, you should be aware of the calories in nuts. It’s easy to forget how dense they are, and what might seem like a reasonable snack of, say, almonds (about 3 small handfuls) contains almost 500 calories. For some perspective, for 500 calories you could be eating a meal of: 4 oz of salmon, one small baked sweet potato with a teaspoon of butter, and one cup of steamed broccoli.
Are you sufficiently terrified of nuts? Afraid that if you eat them, you’ll have major mineral deficiencies, develop cancer, and someone might mistake you for a wrinkly California Raisin?
Relax. Nuts can certainly have a place in a healthy, anti-aging diet. Just follow a few simple guidelines:
- Eating one ounce of nuts 2-4 times per week is reasonable – try to also eat a food high in vitamin C, like an orange or some strawberries, to help counter the phytic acid.
- Soak, dehydrate and roast your nuts as outlined above to reduce the phytic acid content. Store them and use as a condiment on salads or in small quantities in recipes. Additionally you can also sprout your nuts and seeds for easier digestion and absorption of minerals.
- If properly preparing nuts seems like too much effort, remember that nuts are naturally encased in a hard shell. That takes effort and time to crack. Would you really eat 81 (3 oz) almonds if you had to crack each of those 81 shells the way our ancestors did? Probably not. Outfit yourself with a nut cracker and snag some unshelled nuts from the farmer’s market. You’ll be much less likely to mindlessly eat overdo the nuts if you have to work for them.
- Reach for alternative snacks. Combinations of fruit, vegetables, jerky, smoked salmon and Paleo bars are more filling and have a healthier nutritional profile than handfuls of nuts.
- If you’re not ready to say bye to nuts and the thought of prepping them stresses you out, then at the very least purchase pre -soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds, and nut butters