I once heard a prominent radio personality, who was also a physician, remark that after suffering a heart attack, he realized that he should never eat any nuts again. Nuts were the problem in his mind and there is no such thing as “healthy nuts.”
This surprised me because of all the dietary changes that would prevent heart disease, I had never considered eliminating nuts as a key factor. While it is true that nuts are high in fat, it is mostly what we call the “good fat” and as long as you are not allergic to tree nuts (or peanuts), you should be able to include them in moderation in a healthy diet.
In fact, healthy nuts are real powerhouses of nutrition! In addition to providing healthy fats, they are nutrient dense sources of protein, good carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and enzymes.
Healthy nuts can be consumed whole, in nut butters or they can be used to replace meat in some recipes. Nut milks are popular for use in smoothies and sauces or to replace milk if you are sensitive to dairy or just want to include less of it in your diet.
There are a few caveats for the issue of eating healthy nuts:
(1) Nuts can be allergens for some people. Allergic reactions to nuts can vary greatly from minor to life threatening. For this reason, food companies are required to note on the food label if their product may have come in contact with any nuts during processing.
(2) Eat them sparingly since they are high in calories. Find out what a serving of various nuts looks like and stick close to that amount. The good news is that the high fat and calorie content also means high satiety, meaning they will satisfy hunger longer than sugary or high-carb snacks, while providing some great nutritive value.
(3) Most nuts are better for you when eaten raw or lightly toasted and with a minimum of salt. Nutrition is lost in the roasting process and too much salt in your diet is a concern, especially if you are sensitive to sodium and have high blood pressure.
(4) Even healthy nuts can become rancid over time, so store them carefully and don’t eat them if they are stale and taste bad. Most nuts freeze well and can be kept in the refrigerator.
(5) Choose nut butters that do not contain hydrogenated oils and preferably ones without added sugar. The healthiest nut butters are made with just nuts and, optionally, a small amount of sea salt.
(6) When buying nut milks, look for brands that have a minimum of added ingredients. Unsweetened varieties are the healthiest and I would avoid those with carrageenan as a thickener, since this may irritate the digestive system.
Here is a list of healthy nuts you can enjoy:
Almond–an oval-shaped nut that, in its sweet form is popular as a snack, as a flavoring, as part of cereals and as an ingredient in recipes, especially desserts and garnishes; readily available in more forms (in-the-shell, shelled whole, sliced, slivered, blanched and paste) than any other nut; high in protein, fiber and minerals, particularly calcium, and a good source of B vitamins; related to peaches, cherries and plums.
To add extra flavor, texture and nutrition, garnish salads, green vegetables, casseroles, or hot cereals with sliced almonds. Almond milk is popular for making smoothies or as a replacement for dairy milk.
Brazil nut – a large, high-fat nut, native to the Amazon region; grows in clusters and has a hard brown shell; rich in minerals such as selenium.
Brazil nuts have such a high fat content, they will burn like little candles when lit! They are hard to light, and you probably wouldn’t want to waste a good nutritious food in this way, but in a pinch, who knows? Actually, the empty pods of Brazil nuts are often filled with wax and sold as candles, which seems a much wiser use of resources.
You can use sliced Brazil nuts in place of, or along with, water chestnuts in recipes or to add crunch to salads.
You can also make nut butter from Brazil nuts by combining 1 and 1/2 cups nuts with about 4 Tablespoons of oil in your food processor. You may add some good quality salt to taste, if you wish.
Note: Brazil nuts are one of the nuts most likely to become rancid, so refrigerate for best shelf life.
Cashew – a tan-colored, half-moon shaped nut; native to South America; not sold in the shell due to a toxic irritant in the oil of the shells; eaten roasted rather than raw; higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat than other nuts; rich in protein, minerals, B vitamins and fiber.
Cashews grow on a tree and are really the “seed” of a type of “apple” fruit that is very popular in areas of South America where they grow. However, this cashew apple is so perishable that it can only be enjoyed fresh from the tree and thus cannot be shipped to other parts of the world.
Cashews may be used to make nut butter by combining 1 and 1/2 cups nuts with about 4 Tablespoons of oil in your food processor. You may add some good quality salt, to taste, if you wish.
Coconut – fruit of the tropical coconut palm tree; “meat” and “milk” are used for food; oil is used both in edible products such as baked goods, and inedible products such as soap; good source of vitamins and minerals; considered a “super food” by some alternative health practitioners; oil from the coconut is one of the few plant oils that is saturated.
Add unsweetened, grated coconut to breakfast cereals, yogurt and baked goods for extra nutrition, texture and flavor. You can generally substitute unsweetened, grated coconut for sweetened coconut in cookie recipes, since there is usually enough sugar in the recipe already.
Coconut can also be made into flour, which is gluten-free and can be used to replace part of the flour in baked goods. Keep in mind that coconut flour is denser than other flours, so use sparingly to avoid a heavy finished product.
Some health experts consider coconut as a “super food” due to certain properties it possesses. Since there is disagreement on this issue and since coconut does contain saturated fat with all its implications, we may have to wait for more research to be sure. In the meantime, using natural, unsweetened coconut, a whole food, as part of your diet seems reasonable.
Hazelnut (Filberts) – small round, reddish-brown nut, widely grown in Europe and Asia; high in mono-unsaturated fats; good source of minerals and Vitamins A, B and E; also called cobnuts.
Macadamia - Macadamia nut is the seed of the macadamia tree. Although they are grown commercially in Hawaii, California and Florida, Macadamia nuts are native to Australia. They are usually eaten roasted as a snack, but some people use them as “medicine” to lower LDL cholesterol.*
Peanut– not really a nut, but a legume; as a food they are used more like nuts in butters and for snacks; good source of the B vitamin, niacin; provide protein and energy; grow underground; member of the pea family.
Peanuts can be used in main courses as well as desserts. Peanut butter is a popular ingredient in sandwiches and dessert recipes.
Pecan – native North American nut with thin, smooth brown shell and lobed “meat”; related to walnuts and hickory nuts, with a richer flavor; good source of Vitamin E, potassium and protein; may have cholesterol-lowering properties.
Add healthy nuts such as pecans to cereal, salads, yogurt or smoothies for extra nutrition; May also be used to make Baklava.
Pistachio – bright green nut with a buff-colored shell (sometimes dyed red); native to the Europe and Asia; popular as a snack and ingredient in sweets; rich in antioxidants and minerals; may have cholesterol-lowering qualities; member of the sumac family.
It used to be the practice to dye pistachios red to make them more attractive and uniform in color. With better ways to pick and sort the nuts, this practice of dying them red has become less common. No more telltale scarlet fingers from shelling pistachios!
Walnuts – a large, brown nut with a rough shell and lobed “meat”; loaded with heart-healthy fats; help to lower cholesterol; good source of fiber, Vitamin E, protein and minerals; good source of Omega-3 fats; may be found in English and Black varieties.
Sprinkle walnuts on salads or add to cereals; great as a snack; may be eaten (sparingly) before a meal to help control appetite.
One unusual way walnuts are used is picking them while they are still green and then pickling them! Please pass the pickles!
*"Lowering cholesterol. Eating macadamia nuts as part of a healthy diet seems to lower total and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. But the changes aren’t huge. Men with high cholesterol who eat 17-37 nuts per day for four weeks can see their total cholesterol drop by about 3%, their LDL cholesterol drop by about 5%, and their HDL rise by about 8%."