Nuts and seeds have been important sources of energy and nutrients throughout human history. Almonds and pistachios have been known since biblical times, and other nuts and seeds are often mentioned in the literature.
Historians speculate that ancient societies around 10 years ago harvested nuts, which they then used for food. Predictable growth (nuts grow on trees), long shelf life (especially in winter), and tasty nutritional content – all these benefits of nuts were highly valued in ancient cultures.
Interestingly, the ancient Romans gave nuts at weddings, and this custom has survived to this day. Peanuts, which were used by humans as early as 800 BC, landed on the Moon with the Apollo astronauts in 1969.
Nuts and seeds are rich in nutrients. They provide a generous amount of calories, fat, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Micronutrients such as magnesium, zinc, selenium, and copper are important but may be lacking in modern Western diets based on processed foods, and even in some plant-based diets. Nuts and seeds are reliable and tasty sources of these essential nutrients.
In addition, nuts and seeds not only meet basic nutritional needs, but also protect against disease. Bioactive compounds found in nuts and seeds that help fight disease include ellagic acid, flavonoids, phenolic compounds, luteolin, isoflavones, and tocotrienols. Nuts also contain plant sterols that help lower cholesterol levels and the risk of cancer.
Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium. Cashew nuts contain more iron than other nuts. A handful of pine nuts contains our daily requirement of manganese. Sunflower seeds are the richest source of vitamin E. And pistachios are by far the best source of lutein, an important compound for eye health. Including a variety of nuts and seeds in your daily diet ensures that you get a healthy balance of these and other important nutrients.
Guiding principles and recommendations
It’s no secret that nuts and seeds are healthy foods, but unfortunately they’ve had a bad image for so long – mostly because of their relatively high fat content. But even the US government is now talking about eating more nuts and seeds.
In 2003, the US Department of Health confirmed the health benefits of nuts, their beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system, which is a big deal: “Scientific studies suggest, but do not prove, that eating 1,5 ounces a day of nuts as part diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Unfortunately, seeds have not received as much publicity as nuts, although they really deserve it.
Much to the chagrin of vegans and vegetarians, the USDA continues to list nuts and seeds in the same food group as meat, poultry, and fish, as they are all good sources of protein. In a way, it’s unfortunate that nuts and seeds are equated with animal flesh. Meat is known to be detrimental to health (not to mention other meat problems), and nuts and seeds are known to protect health. And their origins are completely different.
But, on the other hand, the recognition of nuts and seeds as an acceptable source of protein can be considered a good sign. Because plant foods have often been viewed as inferior to animal products in terms of nutritional value, grouping peanut butter and steak together suggests that these foods are, at least to some extent, interchangeable. After all, the protein content of nuts and meat is about the same.
A closer look at the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines reveals that nuts and seeds are actually recommended along with fish as healthy sources of fat. In fact, the government website says, “Fish, nuts, and seeds contain healthy fats, so choose these instead of meat or poultry.” The site also states, “Some nuts and seeds (eg, flaxseeds, walnuts) are excellent sources of essential fatty acids, and some (sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts) are also good sources of vitamin E.” If we could make this information more accessible, perhaps people would consume more nuts and seeds and less animal meat, benefiting their health condition.
As vegans, we don’t have to follow official dietary guidelines, but the good news is that the American Dietetic Association’s document also contains statements about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Nuts and seeds are listed here as “legumes, nuts, and other protein-rich foods.” The guide says: “Include two servings of foods that contain omega-3 fats in your daily diet. Foods rich in omega-3 fats are legumes, nuts, and oils. A serving is 1 teaspoon (5 ml) flaxseed oil, 3 teaspoons (15 ml) ground flaxseed, or 1/4 cup (60 ml) walnuts. For the best balance of fats in your diet, olive and canola oils are the best choices.” In addition, “nut and seed servings may be used in place of fat portions.”
How many servings of nuts and seeds should we aim to eat per day? It depends on the rest of your diet. Vegetarians are recommended to eat five servings of protein-rich foods, and two servings of fats, nuts, and seeds can be found in any of these servings. Two servings of nuts and seeds may be enough. A serving of nuts or seeds is 1 ounce, or 2 tablespoons of oil.
Benefit for health
Most studies talk about the health benefits of nuts and seeds, especially for the cardiovascular system. Perhaps this is due to the content of healthy fats and fiber in them, their antioxidant properties, which have a beneficial effect on the functioning of the whole organism. It’s not news that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States. While most research has focused on the health effects of nuts, it’s likely that the health effects of seeds are similar. Studies show that in countries where people eat a lot of nuts, the incidence of cardiovascular disease is lower than in countries where people eat few nuts.
Studies also show not only a reduction in cholesterol levels, but also mortality. More than 34 Seventh-day Adventists participated in the study. Those who ate nuts at least five times a week cut their risk of heart attack by half, and those who ate them only once a week cut their risk of heart disease by 000 percent compared to those who didn’t. who did not eat nuts. Another study of 25 women found that those who ate nuts were 34 percent less likely to die from heart disease than those who never ate nuts. More recently, the Nurses’ Health Study of more than 500 women found lower rates of cardiovascular disease among those who ate nuts frequently compared to those who did not.
In 2005, scientists collected data from 23 studies (including almonds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts) and concluded that 1,5 to 3,5 servings of nuts per week, as part of a heart-healthy diet, significantly reduce the level of bad cholesterol in the blood. At least two studies show similar benefits of eating pistachios.
Despite their reputation as a high-calorie, high-fat snack, nuts and seeds can play an important role in weight loss. How? Mainly due to appetite suppression. Nuts are believed to give a feeling of fullness, which helps reduce the consumption of other foods. Indeed, a recent study found that nut eaters are no fatter than non-nut eaters. A study of 65 people who followed a weight loss program in 2003 found that adding almonds to the diet helped them lose weight faster. Another study in which participants ate three ounces of peanuts a day found that study subjects tended to reduce their food intake throughout the day. They were satisfied that it helped them in their weight loss.
Nut consumption may play a role in diabetes prevention. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that consuming nuts can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes in women. Another recent study shows that eating almonds helps to avoid post-meal blood sugar spikes.
There are few studies specifically looking at the impact of seed and nut consumption on cancer risk. However, we do know that certain components of nuts and seeds, namely fiber and sterols, reduce the risk of some types of cancer. In addition, we now know that different types of fat increase or decrease the risk of breast and other cancers.
Trans fats, found in processed foods and animal products, and saturated fats, found in poultry meat and skin, and high-fat dairy products, are seriously detrimental to health. Nuts and seeds are rich in unsaturated fats (75 to 80 percent) and thus are an important part of a cancer-reducing diet.
Nuts and seeds in a vegetarian diet
In general, vegetarians and vegans tend to eat more nuts and seeds than non-vegetarians. This is not a new phenomenon. In India, for example, peanuts and peanut butter have been an integral part of the vegetarian diet for thousands of years. Most modern vegetarians perceive nuts and seeds not as an occasional snack, but as part of their meals on a regular basis.
Variety of nuts and seeds
You have no doubt noticed that there are dozens if not hundreds of varieties of nuts and seeds. What to choose? Fried? Raw? Smoked? Blanched? Spicy? Fried without oil is better than fried in oil, if that’s your only choice at the grocery store. However, it is better to go to the health food store because pure raw nuts and seeds are the best option.
Cooking nuts and seeds destroys some of the protective nutrients but helps keep the nuts and seeds from spoiling. So, when buying raw nuts and seeds, you need to look for a reliable and safe source, because if stored improperly, raw nuts and seeds can be a source of bacterial contamination. If you buy flavored nuts, check the labels because gelatin is added to some of the flavored products. Smoked or candied nuts may contain added fats, sugars, salt, monosodium glutamate, and other additives. Again, it makes sense to read labels and rely primarily on raw nuts and seeds.
food allergy problems
Of course, not every organism tolerates nuts and seeds. Nut allergies are very common, and seed allergies are also becoming more common, with sesame topping the list of allergens. Allergies are especially common in children and young people.
Most people who cannot tolerate one or more types of nuts or seeds tolerate others well. In severe cases, all nuts and seeds should be avoided. For vegans who need to limit their intake of nuts and seeds, beans and lentils are the best substitutes, combined with plenty of greens, canola oil and soy products rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fortunately, flaxseed allergies are relatively rare, and they are generally safe for those with allergies to other seeds and nuts.
Including Nuts and Seeds in a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
Who said the only way to enjoy nuts and seeds is to eat handfuls of them? There are many creative ways to add them to your meals and snacks. Almost all nuts and seeds can be toasted or powdered. Add your favorite nuts and seeds to dry oatmeal, porridge, rice, pilaf, pasta, cookies, muffins, pancakes, waffles, bread, salad, sauce, veggie burger, vegetable stew, soy yogurt, soups, casseroles, pies, cakes, ice cream and other desserts, smoothies and other drinks. Roasting nuts and seeds gives them a delicious, rich flavor. The easiest way to roast nuts is to put them in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
Proper storage of nuts and seeds
Due to their high fat content, nuts and seeds can go rancid if exposed to heat, humidity, or light for a period of time. Keep unshelled raw nuts for six months to one year in a cool, dry place. Store-bought processed nuts keep for three to four months at room temperature in an airtight container, or up to six months in the refrigerator, or a year in the freezer.
Whole flaxseeds can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for one year, and flaxseed powder can be stored in an airtight, dark container in the refrigerator for up to 30 days, and longer in the freezer.
When buying, we choose nuts that are clean and without cracks (except for pistachios, which are half open). Sesame, sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds, as well as almonds and peanuts, and possibly many other nuts and seeds, can be germinated. Sprouted nuts and seeds are rich in nutrients, and enthusiasts claim that nutrients from sprouts are better absorbed than dried nuts and seeds. Of course, the nutritional properties of sprouts are impressive! You can sprout nuts and seeds yourself, or you can buy sprouts from the store. There are plenty of books and websites on the subject.
Look for a reliable, well-known source of nuts and seeds. Choose a market that has a high turnover, make sure food safety guidelines (e.g. proper use of gloves, cleanliness requirements) are followed. Even the best shops are not a guarantee of the freshness of nuts; if you find the slightest unpleasant smell, return the nuts to the store. If you can’t find a store nearby that has a good selection of fresh nuts and seeds, check out an online store. Visit an online store that ranks prominently in search engine rankings and has good customer reviews and a fair return policy. If you are lucky, you can buy the product directly from the manufacturer!
Champion Seeds: Flax and Hemp
Flax seeds are a huge asset in a vegetarian diet. They also have an interesting history. It is believed that flax began to be grown in Babylon in 3000 BC. Hippocrates used flax to treat patients with digestive problems around 650 BC. Around the eighth century, Charlemagne passed laws actually requiring people to add flax to their diet because it is good for health. We don’t have to eat flaxseeds, but he was sure it was a good idea to get everyone to take care of their health!
Flaxseeds are one of the best plant sources of omega-3 fats, they also contain lignans, anti-carcinogens, and boron, a mineral essential for bone health. It is best to eat them whole, so the nutrients are better preserved (the tiny seeds are easy to swallow whole). You can also add ground flaxseeds to cereals and smoothies. And if you need an egg substitute for cooking, mix 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with 3 tablespoons of water.
Hemp seeds are another super source of omega-3 fatty acids and are widely used in cereals, milk, cookies and ice cream. The seeds (and their oils) are very healthy.
Why not just use oils?
Flax and hemp oils contain more omega-3 fats than a whole seed. It’s actually not a bad idea to use omega-3 rich oils in moderation. But oils should not replace seeds, they should also be included in the diet. Whole seeds contain fiber and other important nutrients that don’t make it into the oil.
Oils high in omega-3s spoil quickly and should be refrigerated and used within a few weeks. These oils are ideal for salad dressings and smoothies, but are not suitable for cooking over a fire. Healthy vegans should aim to consume 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of flaxseed or hempseed oil per day, depending on the rest of the diet.
If you are a strict vegetarian and you care about your health, nuts and seeds should be part of your daily diet. Their nutritional properties, not to mention their flavor and versatility, will help you plan the optimal vegetarian meal plan that is as healthy and tasty as possible.