Of all Primal-approved food categories, none is more bedeviling to even seasoned followers of the lifestyle than nuts. The questions never end. What is a nut? When you’ve got all these nut-like gymnosperms, drupes, and legumes masquerading as nuts, what even qualifies as an actual nut? Does it even matter? Or phytic acid. Is it or isn’t it a problem? And soaking — am I supposed to soak every type of nut, just some nuts, or none of them? Aren’t nuts really high in omega-6s, which we’re supposedly trying to limit or at least balance with our omega-3 intake? How do we reconcile that conflict? Why is “hazelnut” one word, while “pine nut” is two?
I’m out of breath, but this is a fairly representative sample of the nut-related questions I receive from readers. It is confusing, so today I’m going to give you the definitive guide to nuts. After today’s post, you’ll have a solid grasp of which nuts you should and maybe shouldn’t be eating.
Remember when you discovered almond meal? Suddenly, the world got a whole lot bigger and brighter. You cranked out Primal pancakes, cupcakes, cookies. You dusted chunks of chicken with powdered almonds before plopping them in hot oil to produce a chicken nugget that even Loren Cordain would begrudgingly accept. And then you gained some weight back, and your stomach felt kind of funny, and you started worrying about your PUFA ratios. So the almond meal got thrown out, and the sack of raw almonds soon followed. But wait: almonds themselves aren’t the problem. Your inability to moderate your use of almond meal is the problem. Give almonds another chance.
Can you soak? Yes. 12 hours.
Lining the banks of South American rivers are towering trees whose falling fruits are large and hard enough to stave in skulls. On the bright side, cracking open the fruit reveals up to 24 triangular, hard-shelled seeds containing delicious, slightly sweet nuts. These are Brazil nuts, and they deserve a spot in anyone’s diet.
The incredible selenium levels are the most obvious benefit to Brazil nuts, as unless you’re regularly eating animal kidneys and wild salmon, selenium can be hard to come by. But selenium is incredibly important for thyroid function, antioxidant capacity, immune function, cardiovascular health, cancer protection, and, you know what? It figures into just about every aspect of our health. And you don’t need to eat an ounce of Brazil nuts to get the benefits. A nut or two a day will get you adequate selenium.
Can you soak? Unclear. Some say yes, some say no. Do a trial run of a few hours with a couple nuts before soaking the whole batch.
Cashews also hail from Brazil, where they grow alongside a strange fruit called the cashew apple. The apple itself is actually edible and, from what I hear, quite delicious. The cashew shell, however, is lined with a poisonous resin called cashew balm. (Whatever you do, don’t put the balm on.) Cashews themselves aren’t poisonous, because they arrive on store shelves well-laundered and ready for consumption. This also means that raw cashews aren’t exactly raw. They’re steamed (to extricate the nut from the shell).
There’s not a ton of research on cashews. What little exists isn’t very conclusive.
On the whole, they’re probably fine to eat, but they aren’t superfoods.
Can you soak? Yes, 2-4 hours.
Though they hail from trees and enjoy membership in the nut club, chestnuts are unlike most other nuts: they’re starchy things, low in fat and protein, more akin to a tuber than a mac nut. But they’re decidedly Primal. They’re low in phytate, high in flavor, and can be eaten raw, roasted, or steamed. The taste of a perfectly well-roasted chestnut is uniquely satisfying. Nutty, sweet, tender. Kinda like Christmas.
Nutrient powerhouses these are not and few studies into the health effects exist. I’m sure they’re perfectly healthy. Just don’t expect miracles.
Can you soak? A half hour of soaking should make cooking and peeling easier.
Hazelnuts, AKA filberts, aren’t popular snacking nuts. Instead, you usually encounter them in desserts, baked goods, and chocolate confections. But according to archaeologists, hazelnut shells are “one of the most frequently recovered plant materials from Neolithic sites,” so humans have had an affinity for the filbert for millennia — and very likely much longer. As you’ll see from the list of benefits, I think our ancestors were really onto something.
Can you soak? 8-12 hours.
My favorite nut by far: the buttery, slightly sweet mac nut destroys all others. Sure, it may not have the densest nutrient profile. Sure, you’re not going to take care of your daily magnesium needs, and it has hardly any vitamin E at all (but that’s only because there’s no fragile PUFAs laying around requiring protection). But does every bite of every food we take need to be “optimized”? Or can it just be tasty and innocuous? And as you’ll see below, mac nuts do confer health benefits. I’ve yet to encounter a nut that doesn’t.
Can you soak? No need. I just soak them in my digestive juices.
Another nut usually reserved for dessert applications, the pecan is underrated and underutilized as a snack nut. I get it. Pecans taste great encrusted in a syrupy shell and dusted with sea salt. They’re chewy, almost gooey when you roast them. Honey pecans pair marvelously with balsamic vinaigrettes and whatever leafy stuff you decide to eat them with. But I implore you: try a pecan without all the sugar. Try a raw pecan. No heat, no salt, just a raw nut in your mouth. Chew it, and savor the natural subtle sweetness. Pretty good, eh?
Can you soak? Yes, for 6 hours.
Pine nuts come from pine trees, obviously, although most species of pine produce nuts too small to merit harvesting. But when you do get your hands on legitimate pine nuts, you’ve got the perfect ingredient for great pesto sauce; as much as the alternative nuts like walnuts or pistachios make a decent pesto, I still prefer pine nut pesto to anything else. As a snack, pine nuts are uncommon. But that shouldn’t preclude you from giving them a try.
Can you soak? Just a few hours.
I really like pistachios despite the common complaints. They’re funny-looking, the wizened old men of the nut world. Green, too, which maybe makes them the Yoda of the nut world. And it can be really frustrating when you get an entire bag full of shelled pistachios with a nanometer of space between the two halves. But darn it if pistachios aren’t worth the trouble.
Can you soak? Up to 8 hours.
Many people in the ancestral health community avoid walnuts. “Too high in PUFAs,” they say. “Unstable bags of linoleic acid,” they say. And I used to be like that. But while I’m not eating an inordinately large amount of them on a regular basis, and I am aware of the PUFA content, I enjoy a good handful of walnuts semi-regularly. The literature in favor of the walnut is too broad to deny. Also, they’re really good, especially freshly cracked walnuts.
Can you soak? Yes, for 4 hours.
There is a downside to nuts, of course: the overconsumption problem. Nuts are easy to overconsume. They taste good. They’re Primal. They’re fatty, crispy, and slightly sweet. They’re nutrient-dense, so you don’t feel “guilty” eating them. But, throw in some salt and a bit of roasting and you end up with a snack fit for binges. What can we do?
Buy them in the shell.
Only the ability to consume handful after handful of calorie-dense nuts and seeds without breaking the bank or spending an hour cracking them and removing little bits of shell is a recent development. Buying nuts and seeds in the shell makes it work to eat them. Keeps them fresher, too.
Avoid nut butters.
Nut butters make massive overconsumption even easier and more unavoidable. It crushes and condenses what’s already a dense source of nutrients and energy into a delicious paste. And c’mon: those tablespoons are never just a tablespoon. Avoid nut butters if you can’t control yourself around them.
Overall, nuts are just good for you. Pick a nut, any nut: it probably doesn’t matter much. Nuts are consistently associated with lower risks of heart disease and all-cause mortality. They’re probably responsible for the good press PUFAs get in the literature. They’re all fairly rich with antioxidant compounds. They all seem to improve lipid profiles and reduce inflammatory biomarkers. Including nuts in a diet generally improves the nutrient content of that diet. As long as you don’t go crazy and get a large percentage of your calories from nuts, you’ll probably benefit from their inclusion in your diet. They are snacks and supplemental foods, not the main course.
So, folks, what’s your favorite nut? What role do nuts play in your diet? Or, if you hate all nuts and think I’m completely nuts for writing this post, tell me why. Either way, let’s hear what you have to say on the subject down below.
Thanks for reading!
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