I often see articles like “Eating almonds every day will improve complexion and skin quality” or “Eating macadamia nuts will speed up fat metabolism.” While these make for a great dentist’s office waiting room reading, their conclusions are often questionable. Are the added calories in nuts worth it to trade over for the alleged benefit of protein, vitamins and minerals? Let us use data to find out.
I want to make the case that there is no need to be obsessive about nuts. This is NOT to say, ‘Don’t eat them’ or ‘They are not beneficial’. Rather – ‘You are going to be fine even if you chose not to eat them’. (*Please read disclaimer below)
According to “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee an extensive food encyclopedia, “Nuts are much less in the human diet than grains and legumes because nut trees don’t begin to bear until years after they’re planted, and can’t produce as much per acre compared to grains and legumes”. Think about it…you must have heard of grain-based civilization or hunter meat-based civilizations, have you every heard of a solely nut-based one?
McGee also states that nuts are one of the richest foods that we eat, averaging around 600 calories/ 100 gms; by comparison, beef averages 200 calories and dry starchy grains 350. Say, on average, a person eats 1800 calories/day. She decides to increase her nut intake from a small snack to eating nut butter spoonfuls in the morning and evening. She has to give up something else from her diet in more quantities to maintain her daily calories. Is it worth for a vegetarian to give up other parts of their diet in favor of nuts? My conclusion is no and here is why.
What are the most common arguments in favor of nuts? – 1) They are a good source of protein 2) They are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Let us review the 2 claims one by one.
Are nuts really that big a source of protein?
% Composition of nuts*
% Composition of dry legumes*
* Source – On Food and Cooking, McGee. H
As you can see, the protein levels in legumes are similar or higher than nuts. The fat in the nuts is replaced with carbohydrates in the legumes. So, yes they are a good source; but if you are having daals, chana, rajma etc in your daily diet, you should be getting a similar or higher level of protein.
What about vitamins, minerals and fats?
Legumes routinely kick nut’s ass when it comes to vitamins and minerals. People who eat legumes regularly report greater average total daily intakes of dietary fibre, protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, iodine and folate compared with non-consumers. In fact, if you eat food that contains whole grains, legumes, vegetables and greens, you pretty much cover the spectrum of nutrition needed to thrive. If you add dairy, egg and meat, you are even more covered nutritionally. Here are some common examples magazine articles will claim –
- Brazil nuts contains the highest levels of selenium of any food, which helps prevents the development of cancer. This is true. However, you can still get your regular selenium intake from sunflower seeds, mushroom and whole grains.
- Cashews are a great source of magnesium. True, but you can also get magnesium from whole grains, beans and lentils and green leafy vegetables to meet your daily requirements.
- Almonds and hazelnuts are a great source of Vitamin E. Yes, nuts really do well in their Vit E content, topped only by leafy greens. You can also get smaller amounts of Vitamin E from sunflower seeds, avocado, broccoli, squash and pumpkin too.
- Healthy fats – Nuts are a good source of mono and poly unsaturated fats, but if you are using sunflower oil, olive oil, avacado oil, etc, for cooking, you are already getting your healthy fats from those sources as well.
- Walnuts can be a good source of Omega-3 (a polyunsaturated fat). While Walnut may be the only nut to have Omega-3, you can still get more omega-3 from flax seeds, leafy greens and even our very own Urad dal.
I do not hate or love nuts. I think they have a place in delicious dishes and regional cuisines. They work wonders in desserts. They are a healthy, portable snack. They are a good source of healthy fats. I am just not a fan of nuts being pushed as a panacea for every problem (dry skin, bad hair, depression, you name it…).
The lowly grains, beans, leafy greens and vegetables have very little marketing campaigns touting their benefits unlike the more expensive nuts and profitable nut growers association. Leafy greens make the top of almost every nutrition list I have seen. But I haven’t seen marketing campaigns for mustard greens, swiss chard or spinach yet.
There is a tragic true life story that I want to link here. It is about a German Guru, Engelhardt and his followers in 1902 who decided that eating coconuts only was enough to survive and a cure for all mankind’s woes. The story ends with Engelhardt dying a malnourished death at the age of 44.
So, always keep an open mind and question everything, my articles included. If pine nuts suddenly became all the rage next year, there is no need to empty your bank account or eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
*Disclaimer – I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. The premise for this article involves a healthy, well-balanced diet. It will not apply to people who are battling health issues. Please consult with your health care provider before you make any drastic changes to your diet.