Nuts are big time winners in the paleosphere, or at least bigger than I would expect. I mean – they do have their naysayers (like myself) – but they have big time champions, too. Nuts are probably the most popular paleo snack, and they are also often used in flours (like almond flour) for baking paleo treats. At paleo fx, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of my calories came from nuts, given all the paleo treats and protein bars I snarfed between book signings.
I am one of the few people who says ‘no’ to nuts. Of course – occasionally, sure. Have a nut here or there. (I’d happily say the same of ice cream or even bread.) I mean, THESE have nuts, so I won’t cut them out completely. They are, after all, dense sources of vitamins like vitamin E and selenium. They also, in some studies at least, appear to reduce inflammation rather than increase it. So they may not be all that bad. Still, the wisest thing to do is to err on the side of caution, as over-doing it can be seriously detrimental.
Here’s why I don’t like nuts:
#1: 99% of the time they are processed
Nuts are often horribly prepared. Consuming a “processed” nut like one you’d find in a convenient store or a gas station is just like eating deep-fried food, if perhaps worse. This is because…
nuts are often cooked in high omega-6 poly-unsatured seed oil.
Keep your eyes on ingredient labels. If the nuts in question aren’t labeled “raw” they are most likely cooked in some oil or another, and I can almost guarantee you it will be an unhealthy one like peanut oil, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil.. These are all omega-6 seed oils, which are highly inflammatory in the body, even in small doses. Here is an example of a raw nut that would be a better choice, if you do plan to eat them.
And also because…
While being processed, nuts are heated to a dangerous degree.
If “fried,” “baked” or “roasted” in seed oil, the potential for harm skyrockets even higher, as heating these oils (and the nuts themselves!) to high temperatures rancidizes them, creates oxidative damage in the body, and is a surefire, powerful method of inflaming the body.
If “dry roasted,” – which means they’re not prepared in an oil – still be wary! Heating nuts to any degree will rancidize them. Even without the added toxic potential of seed oils, nuts themselves are composed of omega-6 oils and will become extra inflammatory when exposed to elevated temperatures.
2) If raw, nuts still have high omega 6 profiles.
All nuts, save for macadamia nuts, are extraordinarily high in omega-6 fat. (Here’s a great macademia nut choice.)
Check out these numbers collected by Mark Sisson:
Omega-6 Content Various Nuts
(1/4 cup, which is about 20 small almonds, and 200 calories)
Walnuts – 9.5 g (50% of the calories!)
Almonds – 4.36 g (25% of the calories!)
Cashews – 2.6 g
Macadamias – 0.5 g
Brazil nuts – 7.2 g
Hazelnuts – 2.7 g
Pistachio – 4.1 g
Pine nuts – 11.6 g (>50% of calories!)
Pecans – 5.8 g
As you can see, Macadamias are innocent, which is why they are the only nuts I recommend people eat, and Cashews and Hazlenuts are okay. Other than these few exceptions, however, the omega 6 content is extraordinarily high. 10 grams of fat is the amount of fat in one “serving” of oil… so 1/4 cup of walnuts has just as much omega 6 in it as a whole tablespoon of soybean oil, and enough your body needs for more than a week. That is a lot of omega 6 fat.
You might respond as this point by asking the question: “Can’t I balance my omega 6 intake with more omega 3? I heard that the most important aspect of these fats is balance.”
Consider this math: your omega 6: omega 3 ratio should be no more than 4:1, and probably more like 2:1. If you ate one handful of walnuts which means you consumed somewhere between 5 and 9 grams of of omega 6, you’d have to eat one whole pound of salmon, herring, sardines, or mackerel to make up for it.
So it’s hard to achieve balance if you regularly eat nuts. It’s almost impossible, actually. My favorite recommendation regarding omega 6 and 3 intake is to rely on animal products like bacon and beef to deliver to the body the small amounts of omega 6 it needs, consume about 1 pound of fatty fish a week, and leave the nuts for squirrels. (Here’s a great wild caught salmon option)
Moreover – it is incredibly important to keep your total omega 6 and 3 content low. Balance is certainly important. But the balance should be kept to a fairly minimal level. In the above scenario, you’d consume 18 whole grams of these PUFAs. That’s an extraordinarily high number. It is much more ideal to keep a daily intake to less than 3 percent of total calories. For a 2000 calorie diet, this is no more than 4 grams a day.
3) If raw, nuts are still potent sources of phytoestrogens.
Phytoestrogens are molecules from plants that resemble the body’s natural estrogen, but do not quite match it. This means that they sit at estrogen receptor sites. Sometimes they increase estrogenic activity – depending on the type of estrogen receptor present in this kind of tissue, say, in this case, the skin – and sometimes they increase it, like in the ovaries.
In either case, eating a lot of nuts can negatively impact female hormone balance. It’s worth noting at this point that combining phytoestrogenicity (this is not a real word) with inflammation is a big problem for menstrual cramps. If you have trouble with cramping and regularly eat nuts, they may be to blame. (For more on hormonal balance, check out my book Sexy By Nature)
4) If raw, nuts are still very high in insoluble fiber.
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is digested by gut flora and used as nutrients for your body. Insoluble fiber is completely indigestible.
Having some insoluble fiber in the diet is important. This helps keep digestion moving along smoothly. Nevertheless, if you struggle with inflammation, acne, autoimmunity, leaky gut, Chron’s or Diverticulitis, or impaired digestive comfort in any way, nuts can exacerbate the problem. They are roughage. They can scrub the inside of your intestines like a wire brush. Tread carefully around nuts if your gut or skin health is an issue.
5) No matter what, nuts are very high in calories.
I am not a “calorie counter” by any means – but I do know that it’s important to keep calorie intake relatively normal and constant in order to maintain a healthy weight.
This can be hard to do when nuts are so dense in calories. One package of macadamia nuts from my local market Meijer, for example, contains 1400 calories. There are not very many nuts in that package! Like six. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the point. You could eat half of the package before you ever knew it, and that would be enough calories for one whole big meal!
6) No matter what, people tend to eat too many of them.
Nuts, as with most foods, I think are fine “in moderation.”
Yet the fact that they are usually unhealthfully processed, coupled with their high calorie content and status at paleo-snack-of-choice and flour-of-choice, means that they get way overeaten.
In the paleosphere, we spend more time justifying why we eat nuts than seems reasonable to me. Other foods are not hard to justify. Meats, bacon, seafood, vegetables, fruit. These rockstars are all easy to evaluate: “awesome!” We do a lot of backbending for nuts that I find unnecessary. Sure, eat some, as in all foods, but they’re not the best.
Your immune system, skin, hormones, and waistline may thank you.