For most of us, our only encounter with nuts is either a bag of salted offerings during a night in the pub or the net sack of mixed nuts bought for Christmas but still unopened months later because no one has a nut cracker.
At a push, we might find ourselves nibbling the occasional nutty breakfast cereal or wondering if a smear of Nutella on our toast counts as part of our five a day (it doesn’t).
Yet nuts – so often labelled “fattening” or boring unless roasted, salted to death and accompanied by a pint of lager – are actually good for us.
New research from Spanish scientists suggests including a healthy portion of nuts in our diet can lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It followed a study last year which claimed those who regularly eat nuts – particularly walnuts – are more likely to live longer and have a reduced risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
That study busted another major myth surrounding nuts, that they make us fat. Instead, it showed that those who eat them tend to have a lower BMI, smaller waistline and are more physically active.
“Nuts are often neglected but they are among the best things you can eat,” insists Edinburgh based holistic nutritionist Tara Inchbald Holt of Pure Nutrition. They are rich in minerals and essential fats – that doesn’t mean they make you fat, that is absolutely not the case.”
Registered nutritionist Robert Hobson (www.rhnutrition.co.uk) agrees: “Nuts should feature in everyone’s diet if they are trying to improve their health. Nuts contain monounsaturated fats, considered to be one of the healthiest types of fat linked to improvements in heart health. It’s thought the benefit lies not just in their fat profile but in their protein, fibre, vitamin E and magnesium content. Nuts also contain plant sterols that can help to reduce cholesterol.”
So, they’re healthy and tasty. Perhaps it’s time to go nuts for nuts...
A good way to think of how good walnuts can be for us, is just to take a good look at them. “They look like little brains,” points out Tara Inchbald Holt. “And they are full of essential nutrients which are good for the brain.” Walnuts are also a good source of omega 3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (AHA), which is beneficial to heart health. And they are rich in ellagic acid, linked to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.
They are packed with more potent and abundant antioxidants than any other popular nut, as well as healthy fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
One scientific study which analysed the antioxidant qualities of nine different nuts put walnuts right at the top of the supernut pile. That study suggested we eat around seven walnuts a day for maximum benefits.
TRY THEM: Added to a fresh salad with goats cheese and roasted beetroot, baked in a walnut loaf or sprinkled on a warming Pasta Puttanesca.
According to Tara, cashew nuts are a powerful tool in the fight to keep our hearts healthy, with protecting antioxidants.
“They can also increase the libido and are high in copper which helps the body deal with iron,” she adds.
Cashews provide more than 3g of iron per 50g serving, which means they are often an ideal snack for anyone with low iron intake – a problem for nearly a quarter of women in the UK.
Adds Robert: “They also have the greatest source of magnesium, which is involved in lots of chemical reactions in the body and is required to keep bones healthy, steady heart beat, maintains normal muscle and nerve function and keeps the immune system strong. This mineral is also often used by women for PMS.”
TRY THEM: Add to a stir fry for extra crunch, blitz into soups for a creamy texture or baked in nut loaf.
Almond milk is all the rage now, and it’s very easy to see why. “Almonds contain a useful source of calcium which makes them a useful addition to the diets of vegans, or people who are intolerant to dairy,” said Robert.
“Almonds and hazelnuts provide over 70 per cent of the RDA for vitamin E in a serving. Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers. This vitamin is also essential to maintaining a healthy strong immune system and protecting cell membranes, hence it’s link to skin health.”
Packed with magnesium, Tara says almonds are an ideal snack for women with period pains. “And you could eat lots of them and not put on weight .
“Eating nuts actually takes away sugar cravings, so you’re less likely to want to eat something sweet.
“There are essential fats in nuts, but if you want to lose weight, you have to eat the right fats.
“If the body doesn’t have the right essential nutrients it will hold what it gets as it’s starving. The only way to break that cycle is to eat the right things.”
TRY THEM: Liven up brussels sprouts with bacon and almonds, make your own almond milk, scatter over the top of vegetable, prawn and chick pea curry.
Especially good for men, since they’re packed with selenium, a mineral thought to protect against prostate cancer and other diseases. Selenium strengthens the immune system, and helps wounds heal.
“Selenium is good for all sorts of things, including reproduction,” adds Tara. “But don’t overdo it, five Brazil nuts a day is plenty.”
TRY THEM: Add to chocolate brownies, blitz in a fresh fruit smoothie and add to cous cous with apricots and coriander.
Like peanuts (which are legumes) pecans are technically not nuts. Instead they are a drupe – a fruit with a single stone that’s surrounded by a husk. But as long as they’re not served in a sugary pie with a dollop of cream, they are healthy.
Rich in antioxidants which help prevent plaque build-up in the arteries; they’re a great source of vitamin B3, good for an energy boost, and they’re especially full of those cholesterol-lowering sterols.
TRY THEM: Okay, have a pecan pie, you only live once. Toast them, mix with goats cheese and bake in a red pepper or make a Roquefort, pear and pecan salad.
Tara Inchbald Holt is a holistic nutritionist based at Gladstone Place, Edinburgh. 07985 267 218, www.purenutrition.org.uk