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Are Nuts & Seeds Less Healthy Than We Thought?

Gretchen Lidicker
February 26, 2021

Ask a room full of people: Are nuts and seeds healthy? Chances are that almost every person would answer with a simple and confident “Yes.” We’ve all heard about how nuts and seeds are full of protein, healthy fats, and important nutrients like magnesium and selenium. They’re satiating, low in sugar, and may have fewer calories than we originally thought

But in recent years, some nutrition experts are backtracking on their resounding support of nuts and seeds, citing the presence of “anti-nutrients” that have the potential to sabotage their healthy properties. Keep reading to find out why, and whether or not nuts and seeds are less healthy than we thought.

What Are Anti-Nutrients?

Anti-nutrient is what it sounds like: any element in food that blocks the absorption of nutrients. Anti-nutrients are naturally present in many plant-based foods. For example, lectins, which are found in legumes and grains, limit the absorption of nutrients like zinc and calcium. Oxalates, which are found in green leafy vegetables and tea, interfere with iron absorption.  And phytates are anti-nutrients found in the hulls of nuts and seeds. Also known as phytic acid, these anti-nutrients have a strong binding affinity for calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc. 

Are Anti-Nutrients Bad?

This is a complicated question: On the one hand, we’d obviously like to get as many nutrients from the foods we eat as possible. So, something that makes nutrients less bio-available seems like a bad thing. Of note, glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables can limit the absorption of iodine, which may then cause problems with your thyroid.

On the other hand, some anti-nutrients have antioxidant properties and other benefits. Phytates specifically have been associated with lowering cholesterol and preventing spikes in blood sugar.

The takeaway seems to be that the benefits of eating nuts and seeds outweighs the negatives of anti-nutrients for most people. But, if you are concerned about anti-nutrients, you can use a technique called “soaking” to break down the phytic acid. 

How to Soak Nuts & Seeds

“Soaking” is exactly what it sounds like — you simply soak raw nuts and seeds that you buy at the store in water before you eat them. This leaches the phytic acid out of the hull of nuts and seeds and into the water so you can discard it, instead of consuming it. Studies have shown that soaking nuts and seeds can reduce their phytic acid content by more than half.

To soak nuts and seeds, place the raw ingredients into a bowl and then add water until they are fully submerged. Add a sprinkle of salt and a splash of apple cider vinegar (optional) and cover with a kitchen towel. Depending on the type of nut or seed you’re soaking, you can leave the bowl on the counter for up to 24 hours.

Here’s a helpful chart with soaking times for common nuts and seeds! As a general rule, the fattier and more porous the raw ingredient, the less soaking time you need. 

  • 8-plus hours: Almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts 
  • 4 to 6 hours: Pecans, walnuts, Brazil nuts 
  • 2 to 4 hours: Cashew, macadamia nuts, pine nuts 

After soaking, drain the water and allow the nuts or seeds to dry on a paper towel. If you prefer them on the crunchier side, you can dry them in the oven at a low temperature. Store them in the fridge and eat them within a few days. 

If you read this and thought, there’s no way I have time for this — don’t worry! You can buy pre-soaked nuts and seeds at health stores and online. 

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