The answer is not always black and white, because while nuts contain healthy fats, fiber, and phytonutrients, they are a significant source of phytates, and for people with flaring autoimmune conditions or some digestive issues, the answer on nuts could likely be, “Not for now.”
Fortunately there are ways to make sure nuts are both more nutrient dense and easier to digest, and it is very worth while to get the most nutritional value out of nuts, especially if you are consuming nuts on a regular basis.
If you want to skip over the chemical background of phytates, and just learn how to get the most nutrition and fewest negative digestive effects from these crunchy and delightful morsels, skip ahead to “Getting the Most out of Nuts,” otherwise, read on for more details.
Concerns about Phytates
It is important to note that phytates occur in all plant foods to some degree, and the problem arises when they are consumed in excess. These compounds are found in legumes and grains, but also to a moderate extent nuts and seeds.
Phytates are often referred to as anti-nutrients because they bind to minerals like zinc, magnesium, chromium, and selenium making them unavailable to us.1 In fact, when you combine these phytate-rich foods with other sources of minerals, they reduce the mineral absorption even from foods without phytates. In fact, studies suggest that we absorb approximately 20% more zinc and 60% more magnesium when phytates are absent.2
In addition to anti-nutrient activity, phytates also limit the activity of a variety of digestive enzymes including those that break down proteins and carbohydrates. To some degree nuts, and to and even greater degree legumes (including beans, peanuts, cashews, peas, and soybeans) also contain trypsin inhibitors, which further inhibit digestion and aggravate inflammation. Digestion inhibitors are problematic for several reasons:
Undigested proteins fuel pathogenic bacteria in the microbiome.
To compensate, the pancreas will increase secretions of digestive enzymes across the board, requiring more nutrients
Since only certain enzyme pathways are blocked by anti-nutrients, the enzyme activity becomes imbalance and eventually starts to break down and erode tissue of the intestines themselves.3
As you can see, it is important to limit phytate content of the diet. Fortunately phytates in nuts can be managed if they are properly prepared. In fact, in small doses, phytates can even have an antioxidant effect!
Getting the Most out of Nuts
Buy Raw Nuts
The first step to increasing the health of nuts is buying them in the right form. Because of the delicate polyunsaturated oils in nuts, the heat of commercial nut roasting damages them making them rancid. Purchase raw nuts from your local health food store, and keep them in your refrigerator for 2-3 weeks or in the freezer for longer periods of time.
Soaking nuts for 8-12 hours* in salted water will activate phytase, which can then break down phytates and reduce their concentration.4 Be sure to rinse nuts before and after soaking, store them in the fridge, and use within 48 hours unless you plan to ‘crisp’ them. Once nuts are soaked, storing them for long periods of time is not recommended.
After soaking nuts, dry them with very low heat, and you will get a delightfully crunchy lightly nut with reduced phytates that also stores well in the refrigerator.
This method is best done in a dehydrator, which allows you to keep the temperature very low and therefore accumulates the least amount of oxidative damage to the nuts. Be sure to spread the soaked nuts thinly on several racks and rotate racks every 2 hours or so. If you can control temperature, keep it under 120F.
You can also dry them in the oven with the door cracked and on the lowest temperature. Be sure to keep a close eye on them, checking every 10-15 minutes. You are looking for a dry nut with just a slightly darkened color.
Makes 10 servings. Store in the refrigerator
1 cup raw, fresh Brazil Nuts*
2 cup crispy pecans
1 cup crispy macadamia nuts
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1 tsp organic cinnamon
1 tsp organic ginger
1 tsp organic vanilla extract
1/2 tsp vanilla stevia
4 tbsp coconut oil or grassfed butter
2 x10 tbsp flax seeds, freshly ground to garnish each serving.
If you want to create more texture, create big shavings with the brazil nuts until they become too small. Roughly chop each of the nuts, and remaining Brazil nuts individually. Warm coconut oil or butter with spices, vanilla stevia, and vanilla extract and heat until flavors bloom. Toss nuts and coconut flakes with hot oil until coated and mixed well. Allow nuts to cool completely before storing in a tightly sealed container in the fridge.
Homemade Nut Milk
Macadamia nut-pecan milk is a favorite because macadamia nuts have delicious creamy taste, and are higher in healthy fats and pecans are the highest polyphenol containing nut.
Makes 4 cups. Store in the refrigerator
1 cup raw macadamia nuts
1 cup raw pecans
4 cups filtered water + more for soaking
Soak nuts for 12-24 hours. Drain and rinse. Combine nuts with 4 cups filtered water and blend on high in a food processor. Strain through a cheesecloth or fine mesh and store in glass jars in the refrigerator. The nut milk will keep 2-3 days in the fridge. The pulp can be dehydrated at low temperature, and stored in refrigerator to be used as nut meal.
* Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, but because they are prone to molds and mildews, it is better not to soak them. Consume them in their raw form and make sure that they smell fresh and inspect them visually to make sure they are free from mold.
Torre M, Rodriguez AR, Saura-Calixto F. Effects of dietary fiber and phytic acid on mineral availability. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1999
Navert B, Sandstrom B, Cederblad A. Reduction of the phytate content of bran by leavening in bread and its effect on zinc absorption in man. Br J Nutr. January 1985.
Ballantyne S. The Paleo Approach. Victory Belt Publishing ; 2013
Egli I et al. The influence of soaking and germination on the phytase activity and phytic acid content of grains and seeds potentially useful for complementary feeding. J Food Sci. 2002