Go nuts!

Although nuts are available all year round, now is the season, and you’ll see all different kinds of nuts in the shops right now. A handful of nuts a day may keep the doctor away, ideally alongside an apple, which is said to do the same! (But keep reading, there are some downsides, too.)

People who eat nuts on a regular basis are less likely to suffer a heart attack or heart disease than those who don’t. One of the reasons for this may be the fact that nuts contain arginine, an amino aid that is known to protect the lining of the arterial walls, keeping them flexible. It is also needed to make a compound called nitric oxide, a chemical that helps relax blood vessels and keeping the blood flow easily. Moreover, nuts are a great source of antioxidants, which also help prevent heart disease.

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But what nuts are most famous for – and the reason why so many people try and avoid them – is their fat. Because of their fat content, nuts are high in calories, and that has given them a bad name. Luckily, we now know that calories don’t matter as much as was once thought.

The fat in nuts is good fat, so relax! Most of it is monounsaturated, but some is polyunsaturated, some saturated (to understand what those distinctions mean, click here). Those with the highest overall fat content are pecan nuts, macadamia and pine nuts – not surprisingly they are the yummiest, too. Macadamia, pecans and almonds have a lot of monounsaturated fat, while walnuts have the most omega-3 – the others don’t have much of that at all. The polyunsaturated fat in most other nuts is omega-6, of which most of us have more than enough already. Still, if you’re going to cut back on your omega-6, I’d rather you do that by avoiding supermarket processed cooking oils (e.g. sunflower).

In recent years, our thinking of which fats are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’ has changed, but monounsaturated fat has always had a good reputation. It is the predominant fat in the Mediterranean diet (whatever that might be exactly), which is thought to be the best diet for heart health. The Lyon Diet Heart Study found that people on the Mediterranean diet experienced 70% less heart disease, which was three times the reduction achieved by statin drugs.

So, which nuts are best? The ones you like best, really! Perhaps with one caveat: While cashew nuts are very yummy, they are also surprisingly high in carbs: They contain a whopping 27g of carbohydrate per 100g. If that was chocolate, I’d tell you that it’s too sugary. So, go easy on cashews. Cashews are closely followed by pistachios (18g/100g), but most others are much lower, lower than 10g/100. The nuts that are lowest in carbs are pecan nuts (again) and Brazil nuts (4g/100g), macadamia (5g/100g).

To get the benefit of their good fats, nuts are best eaten raw. To make them more interesting, you can spice them up to your hearts content: How about a cinnamon/vanilla mix for those with a sweet tooth? Or perhaps a chilli and cumin version? Or just curry powder? Just melt a teaspoon of coconut oil in a pan, throw in a bag of nuts (about 200g) and your spices of choice. Or lightly toast your nuts and toss in a tablespoon of tamari soya sauce while still warm?

A great way to get more nuts into your diet is through nut butters. They are now widely available, not just in health food shops, but also in supermarkets (e.g. Meridian). You can blend a tablespoon of almond butter into your morning shake or spread on thinly sliced apple or celery sticks. Peanut butter goes well with banana, either in a shake or on toast. (And by the way, that famous chocolate hazelnut spread you grew up with is NOT a nut butter! It’s a jar of sugar and palm fat with a little bit of hazelnut in it. You’re much better off making your own.) If you don’t want to buy almond milk – because you may want to avoid the nasty additives some of them contain – you can just blend a spoonful of almond butter with water as and when you need almond milk. Here are my instructions for homemade almond butter. It’s not a recipe as it has only one ingredient: almonds.

One of my favourite breakfasts is stewed apple with coconut yoghurt and slivered almonds, but of course nuts also work well in savoury cooking: Pine nuts go nicely with anything Mediterranean, most famously pesto, but also as a topping for hummus or salads. Walnuts are nice in Waldorf Salad or any salad with dark green leaves such as spinach or watercress, and they go well with beetroot and blue cheese. My tomorrow’s newsletter will have a recipe for a walnut and red pepper dip. Cashews and peanuts are popular in oriental stir-fries.

There are, of course, some caveats:

First of all, nuts are the most common food allergen. People who are allergic to nuts must not eat them, even if their symptoms are minor. The symptoms can escalate at any time, so please be very careful, read labels and make sure that all of your food and drink is completely nut-free.

Second, most of the nuts we buy are shelled, which makes them vulnerable to a fungus called Aspergillus flavus – you wouldn’t see it with the naked eye, but it is highly toxic (aflatoxin). Poor quality nuts or nuts that have not been stored properly could be affected. I have checked with Meridian, who assure me that they test all of their nuts for contamination before using them as nut butters.

Roasting helps protect from Aspergillus and also improves the digestibility of nuts. Ideally, do the roasting yourself at home, because commercially roasted nuts are often ‘roasted’ by deep-frying, which is never a good idea for anything as this cooking method involves transfats and is thought to contribute to increased levels of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.

Nuts – like grains and pulses – contain a compound called phytic acid, which can block mineral absorption as well as the secretion of digestive enzymes. We can probably all cope with a small amount of phytic acid in our diet, but if you eat a lot of nuts, you might be getting too much. Roasting (see above) and soaking is thought to remove most of the phytic acid. Ground nuts or ‘nut flours’ are usually made from the blanched nut, so they are low in phytic acid already as most of that sits in the skin. If you have iron deficiency anaemia, limit your nut intake, as phytic acid can considerably affect absorption.

Lastly, the arginine that is so good for heart health is not so brilliant if you suffer from cold sores and herpes infection. Arginine promotes the activation of the herpes virus.