In today’s health-obsessed times, it’s only natural to seek out the finest organic produce in a bid to take our personal wellness to the max. Food, of course, above pretty much all else, is the ultimate determinant of our physical wellbeing. If we don’t continually stoke our bodies with premium nutritional fuel, then – inevitably – we will go into decline. Moderation, however, is all important.
Eat too much and you are Michelin-Man-mocked by your mates, even as your risks of thrombosi multiply and your knees wear out well before their warranty. Eat too little and your Belsen chic will fool no-one, as vital organs begin to shut down and your beltless pants threaten to ever parachute below your knees.
As a result, we all too frequently have to contend with a welter of faddy diet plans, regimes that benefit newspaper circulations far more often than they deliver a new improved you – trim in all the right places, with a BMI that causes no medical concern. In truth, though, these faddy theories will do little for either your waistline or your credibility, with your naturally slim chums guffawing at your carb-free lunch, while hitting the pies free from any high calorie consequences.
For many, though, such unhealthy food can have drastic repercussions. All too frequently, they contain chemically-altered fats and sugars that are certain to provide your body with quite the wrong nutrition. If any at all. This, of course, does trigger a number of inevitable questions: What are the most convenient and affordable healthy foods? What can provide us with enough energy so we don’t feel the need to continually snack throughout the day? What healthy foods can we easily customise to meet our individual preferences?
As with many other of life’s most compelling and confounding questions, “nuts” would seem to be the answer. Essentially a nut is a fruit composed of a hard shell complete with a seed inside, most of which are entirely edible. Nuts have a rich and long history as a foodstuff and are now proving increasingly popular with the current generation of discerning diners.
In fact, people have been eating nuts pretty much ever since opposable thumbs first made their inner bounty accessible to the more dextrous primates. Today, they are consumed at top tables and in low dives, pretty much anywhere there is a degree of sensitivity as to just what is good to slide down your gullet. Despite this long history and their widespread popularity, we still have much to learn about the possible health benefits of these tree-borne snacks, with many actually arguing that they are far more beneficial than the more generally championed fruits and vegetables, such as apples, carrots and broccoli.
In fact, this hard-shelled fruit – often so visually unappealing upon initial acquaintance and difficult to access for the uninitiated – has a potentially immense and positive impact on human wellbeing. Far too few people are aware that regular nut consumption can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes, while ameliorating the affects of age-related memory syndromes – such as Alzheimer’s – and even helping to lower cholesterol levels. In truth, despite a wealth of related research projects, science is still coming to terms with all the possible bodily boons a nut-high diet could bequeath.
There is, however, a degree of consensus that is the omega-3 fatty acid content of nuts, together with their high concentration of vitamin E, that accounts for many of these benefits. While nuts are high in fat and carbohydrates – some more than others – it is a form of fat that provides essential nutrition to both humans and animals.
In tests it has been proven that a handful of nuts a day can have a long-term positive impact in terms of providing essentials proteins, fibre and unsaturated fats, as well as a number of important vitamins and minerals. These can be derived from a wide variety of nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.
Most recently, nuts were endorsed by Barack Obama, the US president, who confessed to his habit of indulging in an almond snack prior to retiring every night. If even the leader of the western world can find time to top up on his daily nut intake, there is really no excuse for lesser mortals to fail to be so nutritionally diligent.
In terms of the premium performers within the nut world, almonds contain the most fibre, while also providing a potent supply of antioxidants. Also, if you are looking to drop an inch or two prior to investing in your winter wardrobe, almonds are said to help you shed a pound or two.
Walnuts, for their part, are said to have a role to play in countering inflammation, helping to protect the body from the cellular damage that contributes to heart disease, cancer and premature ageing. If you’re not a fan of fish, eating walnuts is a good way of getting that all-important omega 3 fix.
Then there’s pecan nuts. They are not only tasty, but also help to boost brain health. In the case of pistachios, these are rich in antioxidants, containing both a cancer-combatting nutrient and ample vitamin E. They are also packed with potassium, an element essential for both a healthy nervous system and for muscle development. This is not to mention their rich vitamin B6 content, something said to lift your mood while fortifying your immune system.
Macadamia nuts, however, are the most calorie-dense of the bunch, so you might want to go easy. On the plus side, raw macadamia nuts contain high amounts of vitamin B1, magnesium and manganese. Their nutrition profile has even been compared to that of olives, items long-celebrated for their health-enhancing benefits.
If raw nuts are not your thing, though, there’s no need to worry. Across the world, many chefs are now highly adept at spicing up this nutritious food. It is simplicity itself to specify the addition of one of your favourite spices – be that chilli, curry powder, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, paprika or even brown sugar – to transform the taste of the au naturel nut.
Another source of nut nutrition is nut oil, something easily obtained by compressing a selection of nuts. For those unwilling to invest in a little peanut press of their own, a wide variety of commercially produced nut oils are now available. Most commonly, this includes macadamia, peanut, cashew, almond and pine nut varieties.
A good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, nut oils, however, lack the fibre found in whole nuts. Today, nut oils are among common ingredients in salad dressings and are frequently used in cooking preparations. For those on a limited budget, however, nut oils tend to be a little more expensive than a number of common alternatives, such as sunflower oil.
Overall, the variety of nuts available today is simply astonishing, while their health-giving qualities seem ever more impressive as every research programme concludes. So next time you are faced with a sudden urge to snack, don’t go mad on crisps and dips. Just go nuts.