Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Nutrition Debate #139: Nuts – the Very Good, the Also Good, and the Bad


I love nuts. I mean real nuts – not peanuts (although I love them too – I just don’t eat them anymore). Peanuts are legumes and toxic to my health, but nuts – true TREE nuts – are different. They’re all good tasting, and all high fat, of course, but some are much healthier than others, some are more of a toss-up, and some should be avoided. The basis for determining that is largely the type of fats they contain, and the rule here is the same as it is for all high-fat foods: saturated fat is good; monounsaturated fat is also good, and polyunsaturated fat is good or bad depending on their Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.  Unfortunately, many nuts contain too many Omega 6s and should just be shunned.

But before I categorize nuts according to fat type, and particularly their polyunsaturated n6s and n3s, we need to talk about context. If you eat three (or even two) small healthy meals a day, you will not be hungry. So, when would you eat nuts? 1) As a regular between-meal snack? 2) If you should “feel” hungry on occasion? 3) At a social gathering where nuts are one of the few offerings that are an “allowed” food? Or 4) perhaps as a salad ingredient at a sit-down dinner?

For me, the answers are 1) Never as a between meal snack. They are simply not needed; 2) I think you should listen to your body, but not to your “head.” Your head can send false signals. The brain is very adept at this. If I “feel” hungry (before or after dinner, the only times for me), I “deny” the feeling. I distrust my “feeling.” I either tough it out, and/or drink something non-caloric; 3) at a social gathering: I haven’t mastered this one yet. I will usually succumb and eat the nuts. I will regret it later, but I am weak when I SEE – that is, when I am VISUALLY seduced (conditioned?); 4) as an ingredient of a dish, say a salad: I like this option, especially when the main dish is low fat, like a non-fatty fish entrée.

Another issue is raw or roasted, unsalted or salted, and/or otherwise coated. The answer, again for me, is roasted, unsalted or salted, but otherwise not coated (as in “honey roasted”!). Some people like raw, organic nuts and others like to roast their own so they can control the heat and mediate the oxidation. Some people prefer the taste or “health benefits” of unsalted. For me, I don’t obsess about this. I like both unsalted and salted nuts and if I’m only going to add a few unsalted nuts to a salad, it’s really not going to make much difference. To summarize: for me, nuts then are only a “party option” (mea culpa) or a supplementary ingredient in a salad. Snacking and emotional eating are verboten!

Remember, the issue with nuts is which ones contain the fewest polyunsaturated Omega 6 fatty acids. Here is my list:

·         Low Omega-6 nuts: macadamia nuts and coconut (the fruit)

·         Moderate Omega-6 nuts: hazelnuts (filberts) and avocado (the fruit), and almonds

·         High Omega-6 nuts: walnuts, pine nuts, butternuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds.

Note that cashews and pistachios are not included on this list because, while moderate in Omega 6s, they are too high in carbohydrates. Other dietary choices which offer good, moderate and bad Omega-6 options as food choices are:

·         Low Omega-6 nut (and fruit) oils: coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, and palm oil

·         Moderate Omega-6 oils: olive oil

·         High Omega-6 nut oil: walnut oil

Nut oils, however, come with certain risks to health: the higher the Omega-6 content, the greater the danger of damage from high heat and chemicals in processing and manufacturing and the more likely they are to become rancid on the shelf. After opening, high Omega-6 nut oils should be refrigerated; they are fragile. And they should not be used in high heat food preparations. The same principles apply to nut butters.
If you’re influenced by the Paleo ideology, as I am, you might find it appealing to think of tree nuts in the same way we should think of fruit: as a local, seasonal treat. In today’s world, of course, that is no longer the case. Fruits, hybridized to make them larger and sweeter, are often produced half-a-world away are available year-round at the corner market, like fresh flowers from Amsterdam or Columbia. Nuts are too, but in our culture they tend to be consumed mostly during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas when they are displayed at the front of the supermarket in large boxes and barrels. These displays suggest to me the way we should think of both nuts and fruit: as something special to be consumed as a treat, not as a staple, and then only “in season.” I don’t mean to imply this in the literal sense. That would be orthorexic, and far be it for me to think that way (LOL). I mean it in a way that allows us to enjoy something special on special occasions: something to look forward to, like the first asparagus of spring or apples in October; or, on my WOE, a warm main-course dinner salad of frisée, lardons, and sautéed Baby Bella or Crimini mushrooms, all tossed in a homemade vinaigrette dressing and topped with chopped hazelnuts and shaved Pecorino Romano (or a poached egg). Bon appétit!

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