Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Nov

Dear Mark: Are Roasted Nuts and Nut-Based Baked Goods Healthy?

I type these words with cranberry stickiness under my fingernails and the faint but unmistakable scent of turkey lingering about my person (I don’t think Buddha, my white lab, has stopped following me around all weekend, sneaking in the odd lick to an elbow still glistening with turkey grease; and, yep, he just got me again). The massive poultry carcass just finished three days of simmering for stock, odd bits of breast meat and yam and solidified gravy popping up on every shelf in the fridge, empty wine bottles holding an Occupy Kitchen Counter. Ah, Thanksgiving, how I love you.

A staple of Thanksgiving seems to be fretting over holiday treats, only it’s a little different in the Primal community. Instead of freaking out over the saturated fat content of a dollop of whipped cream on a slice of pumpkin pie, we agonize over the gluten content, wonder if baking truly deactivated all the wheat germ agglutinin present in the crust, and speculate about how our gut flora will react to the fiber in the pumpkin filling. And when we make our own versions of holiday baked goods, like almond meal this or walnut flour that, we worry about the potential oxidation of the heated omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in the nuts. In fact, in the past week, I have received several questions on this very topic:

Dear Mark,

With all the delicious Primal recipes out there for holiday baked goodies, I have to wonder if they might actually be doing my health more harm than good. Does baking with nuts/nut butters turn them from a nutritious whole food and healthy snack into an oxidized omega-6 disaster?

Thanks!

Alyssa

There are several questions (and sub-questions) that need addressing here. First, do the omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in nuts oxidize when you heat them? Second, if they do, does the degree of oxidation from heating increase when you use ground nuts? Third, even if nut fats oxidize to some degree after heating, does it matter if we eat them? When the rubber hits the road, when the partially oxidized nut lipids hit the GI tract, what happens? Does eating said nut products translate to increased inflammation in the body or more oxidation of serum lipids? Well, let’s look into it.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), I was unable to find any studies that specifically examined Primal or paleo nut-based baked goods. I did find some interesting research on the stability of nuts when exposed to heat and some on the stability of blood lipids after eating nuts. It’s not what we’re looking for, not exactly, but from the available data we can divine some useful information and perhaps even make an educated guess or two about whether that Primal pie crust is okay or not.

So, heating nuts. There’s actually not a ton of data on the effect of roasting on nut lipids, but there’s some.

What’s cool about nuts is that they’re not just passive little balls of MUFA and PUFA, nice bite-sized vegetable oil snacks. You may not want nuts to oxidize because you don’t want to eat the rancid fats, but nuts have some real skin in the game, too; if they oxidize prematurely, they don’t germinate and grow up to be trees. To avoid this, the lipids are located within individual cells, protected by dense networks of cell walls made of polysaccharides lined with phenolic compounds designed to prevent the oxidation of the admittedly fragile fats. Simply put, the stability of a nut exposed to heat depends on a few things – its polyunsaturated fat content (more PUFA means more susceptibility, more MUFA means more stability), its antioxidant content (flavonoids and other antioxidants like vitamin E protect against oxidation), temperature, and the method of heating (dry roasting is gentler, oil roasting is harsher).

What about eating them?

Roasted almonds, raw almonds, and roasted almond butter all improved lipid numbers in one study, with the butter having the smallest impact. So, roasted pulverized almonds are less good, but still pretty good.

A big review of nuts and oxidation (PDF) found that for the most part, eating nuts improves serum lipid stability. It either reduces markers of oxidative stress or increases the resistance of lipids against oxidizing. And in the studies that showed no benefit, there were also no negatives. It was either beneficial or neutral. Almonds usually had better effects on oxidation than walnuts (lower PUFA, more MUFA). Of course, though most of the studies used raw nuts, the ones that used heated nuts still found benefits. Not too much data on heated ground-up nuts, sadly. There was a study that used almond meal muffins (although they weren’t exclusively almond meal). Eating those had no effect on lipid oxidation, neither good nor bad.

In other words, if eating nuts doesn’t improve the situation, it at least doesn’t worsen it. Then again, we have to take these studies with a grain of salt and consider the subjects’ baseline diets. These were not Primal subjects on a strict Primal – but nut-free – eating plan who experienced benefits upon incorporating nuts into their diets. These studies are by and large conducted using representatives of the general population, the same general population that eats a bad diet, is overweight trending toward obese, ingests a litany of pharmaceuticals, and leads a sedentary, stressful life. Replace their Cheezits with almonds and you’ll absolutely see some miraculous health benefits. I don’t think anyone would disagree.

But what if you add nut-based muffins and pancakes to a Primal eater’s daily arsenal of grass-fed beef, coconut, liver, eggs, leafy greens, berries, and sweet potatoes? Do good things happen? Bad things? Neutral things? Now, some of us in the Primal camp are overweight, eat less-than-ideally, have a few prescriptions, and don’t move and avoid stress as often as we’d like (and indeed a lot get involved with this stuff to avoid or defeat said maladies of the general population), but we are generally better off than the average eater. But what happens?

Definitive studies on Primal treats don’t exist, so I won’t be citing anything. But I’ve gathered plenty of feedback from readers, and I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of how these Primal treats affect us. As treats, as special occasions, they appear to be fine. And remember: even if those people in the nut studies who saw the most benefit from eating almonds or walnuts were strict SAD-eaters, that just indicates that the occasional Primal nut-based baked indulgence is a better cheat choice than pizza, pie, and fries.

As staples, as regular parts of the daily diet, they may cause problems.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t eat Primal almond meal pancakes that use a cup of pure almond meal every morning for breakfast, because, well, a cup of tightly packed pure almond mass is over 1000 calories with more than 13 grams of omega-6 PUFAs. And that’s not including the eggs and coconut milk you used to bind it, the grass-fed butter you slathered on it, nor the blueberry reduction you drizzled all over it. Almonds, eggs, coconut, butter, blueberries (with, let’s face it, some sausage on the side) are all fantastic, delicious, nutritious Primal foods, but a lumberjack you ain’t (if you’re a lumberjack and you’re reading this, you have my apologies and my blessing to consume almond meal pancakes regularly). Most of you don’t need all that food every morning. There are limits. The studies that show benefits to nut consumption use reasonable amounts, usually around 50 or 60 grams, which is a large handful of nuts. 200 grams of almonds with the protective cell walls pulverized and subjected to heat? It might add up over time.

Exercise moderation with the baked goods. Be smart and pay attention to what they’re doing to your body. If you find yourself gaining weight after too many walnut meal pie crusts, maybe cancel your Amazon subscription to the nut flour variety pack. All in all? Don’t eat this stuff all the time. They’re treats. They’re not really health foods, regardless of the quality of ingredients used. Just like you wouldn’t eat cupcakes every day and think you were making a massive contribution to your health, don’t eat almond muffins every morning and call it breakfast. And remember, if you’re going to eat nuts, the best option in my book are macadamias, hands down.

Thanks for reading, and keep the questions coming.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I think that this is good advice. When I was first diagnosed with food allergies, I went a little nuts over nuts, trying to get enough calories to stay satisfied… but there is such a thing as too much! I found that more than a few tablespoons of almond flour/butter can make me sick (stomach pain). Although almond flour treats are tasty when you are on a super-limited diet, it is really, really easy to overdo it when it tastes like a light treat but is actually packed with fat and calories. I think that my problem is my gallbladder (although it doesn’t bother me normally), but I would imagine that even in a person with perfect digestion, eating large portions of concentrated nut flour might be hard on the stomach… As they say, “everything in moderation”.

    Kirsten wrote on December 4th, 2011
  2. I’m totally nuts about nuts! I could eat them all the time. There are days, when I eat literally pounds of the stuff. I know it’s too much, but I really crave them. Is my body wrong sending me this ‘message’? I’m not overweight and I otherwise try to eat really healthy, lots of greens, veg, no processed foods and lately no grains either.

    Foxygee wrote on January 30th, 2012
  3. This is my biggest issue! I eat WAY too much almond and coconut flour “treats”. Was trying to get off the food addiction rollercoaster, haven’t quite made it. I’m going to do a 21 day sugar detox starting the beginning of October. Sigh. Been doing really well at staying primal, but still have a few kinks to iron out. Like eating massive amounts of fruit and cookies and cakes oi!

    Amy wrote on September 13th, 2012
  4. Would coating the nuts in a high-MUFA oil, like expeller-pressed safflower oil, protect the nuts even more? Thanks!

    Mike wrote on August 3rd, 2013
  5. One thing I have not seen mentioned in this article or the comments secion is the specific effect nuts can have on the digestive system. I found out about this the hard way.

    There is a sphincter muscle between the small and large intestine called the ileocecal valve. This valve is supposed to remain close except while food is being passed from small to large intestine. In some people, however (more people than you might imagine), that valve gets stuck in either the open position (most common) or closed position. If it’s open, the contents of large intestine back flush into the small intestine, causing toxins and, essentially, “garbage” to fill the small intestine (which is where your immune system lies). If it’s stuck closed, contents of the small intestine stay in there far too long and create a “back up” in the digestive tract.

    Foods such as nuts, seeds, grains, popcorn, raw veggies, spicy foods, etc. can cause irritation to this valve. In my case, I did not heed the warning of my chiropractor when I went Paleo and I consumed too many nuts. Thus, I am now paying the price in the form of an “open” ileocecal valve – and the resulting very strict diet, until it closes back up.

    Look it up on the Internet if you want to learn more and/or you suspect you might have this issue. Again, it’s a LOT more common than you might think and it’s even more common in individuals who have been making changes to improve their diet. This is due do the larger quantities of raw veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. that the person has consumed. I am now avoiding nuts, and all the other foods mentioned above, which have been known to cause an irritation to that valve. So, just a word of caution to those who are eating nuts on a daily basis.

    Rachel wrote on August 25th, 2013
    • I forgot to mention that, at least in my case, one symptom of a weakened ileocecal valve is “heartburn” type of feeling in the lower abdomen, often felt most intensely on the right. The ICV is located about two inches in from your right hip. It can be massaged to help speed up the healing and ease discomfort. Often, there are other, less obvious, symptoms as well, leading the condition to be dubbed “The Great Mimicker.”

      Rachel wrote on August 25th, 2013
      • In my first comment above, that should have read “This valve is supposed to remain CLOSED.” Not “close.”

        And “secion” is supposed to be “section.”

        Rachel wrote on August 25th, 2013
  6. It sounds like pistachios, a drupe, are fine to be eaten roasted…even better than raw! Do you roast them and eat them?

    Barb wrote on August 25th, 2014
  7. I thought roasting nuts was harmful in that it produced acrylamides . Any thoughts?

    Diana wrote on February 1st, 2015
  8. I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and coverage! Keep up the wonderful works guys I’ve included you guys to my own blogroll.

    tiffany and co wrote on January 28th, 2016

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