Nuts About Nuts – and Seeds!

mixed nutsBirds love them. Squirrels hoard them. Trees kind of need them too.

Plants have a problem. Seedlings need a helping hand until their leaves open and they’re making their own energy. So the mother plant stores a concentrated bundle of energy, oil, fat and protein in a package next to the embryo. Covered in a hard shell or or a tasty fruit, the nut or seed waits until the conditions are right to burst open. That’s if somebody, or something, doesn’t get there first! These energy bundles are a great food for all sorts of animals. Our ancestors didn’t take long to work this out too. Tiree was covered in low trees after the last Ice Age and part of this ‘forest’ was a mass of hazel trees. There are several growing up in the gardens of Balephuil today. Roasted on the fire hazel (or cob) nuts were eaten in huge quantities in the autumn. Enormous piles of shells have been found on Colonsay from this period 7000 years ago, and it is obvious that this was the place to hang out in October in the Stone Age.

Nuts in general are chock-full of protein, fat, fibre, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. They usually have a very high fat content, ranging from 46% in cashews to 76% in smooth macadamia nuts. But this fat is a very healthy variety – it’s mainly unsaturated. And walnuts are the world’s richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, the sort of fat that oily fish are famous for and that are so good for your heart. Nuts are naturally cholesterol free, but they do contain a sort of fat called phytosterols. These special plant oils reduce cholesterol digestion and help to cut down the amount we absorb from our other food. (Some margarines have this as an additive for precisely this reason). Nuts are rich in fibre – 4 to 11% – and are around 25% protein. All these goodies are at higher levels before roasting and cooking – so eating them raw is best. Nuts and seeds are also low in sodium but are rich in potassium and calcium – they’re good for blood pressure and good for bones. (This benefit is rather lost if they’re eaten covered in salt!).

Nuts and seeds sound as if they tick lots of boxes when it comes to having the right ingredients. But does that mean they make you live longer? A lot of experts used to think not. They were too rich and too oily to be good for you: nuts and seeds would make you fat and put your cholesterol up. But in 1992 a breakthrough was made studying an unlikely group of people. Seventh Day Adventists follow a Christian church founded in America in 1863. They are well-known for worshipping on Saturdays, but many of the church’s followers believe they should also be vegetarians. The founder of Kellogs was introduced to the habit of eating a plate of cereal for breakfast by his Seventh Day Adventist brother. This group has a diet containing a lot of seeds and nuts, but researchers found that they had less heart disease than you would expect: the nuts seemed to be protecting them. Other research has confirmed this: eating nuts at least twice a week lowers the risk of heart attacks by almost 50%. And a handful of peanuts (or ‘ground nuts’, not proper nuts but related to peas), or a tablespoon of peanut butter, were as good, if not better, than ‘tree’ nuts. And a lot cheaper!. Giving people more nuts to eat actually reduces their cholesterol. And contrary to expectations, nut lovers were actually thinner than nut haters. This is surprising when you count how many calories nuts and seeds contain. But they are high in fibre and oils and they do stop you feeling hungry quickly. Eating lots of nuts and seeds also reduces cancer – but, surprisingly, just in women! And nuts also protect you against needing a gallstone operation.

Altogether, nut eating helps you to live longer: 20% longer for people who ate nuts every day. One word of warning: about 1% of us are allergic to nuts, particularly peanuts. And this can be very serious. So these people can’t join in this party. On the question of allergy in children, there has been some argument recently about whether mums should eat nuts in pregnancy. The evidence seemed to show that mums who ate peanuts during pregnancy had kids with more peanut allergies. But, just to confuse us, a new study has come to just the opposite conclusion!

Eating a handful of nuts or seeds a day must be one of the easiest and most pleasant ways to live longer I can think of. One of the downsides is that they can be quite expensive. Most tree nuts come from mature trees, so they can’t be grown to demand like many other crops. If everyone discovers the secret of nuts, the price is going to go up. But you can sprinkle pine kernels or pumpkin seeds on your breakfast cereal or porridge, or have a peanut butter sandwich at lunch time without breaking the bank. A (handful of)nut(s) a day definitely keeps the doctor away!

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