A healthy, balanced vegan diet should be based around whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and healthy nuts. Nuts take the top pier of the vegan food pyramid primarily because they are calorie dense, and because they are small, it's easier to overeat them and take in a lot of calories in the process.
As a general rule, I don't worry about calorie counting in everyday life. The health benefits of nuts outweigh the fact that they have a high amount of fat in them, however, you should still try to stick to smaller portions of them.
While each type of healthy nut has a different claim to nutritional fame, many of the common health benefits of nuts include: lowered risk of getting heart disease, tons of protein, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. They also have a bioflavonoid called resveratrol, like in red wine, that reduces the plaque in your arteries. So, eat them sparingly, but do add them into your diet!
One tip for retaining all the health benefits of nuts is to make sure to store them in the fridge. Each nut is filled with healthy oil and when those oils are exposed to heat or light, they begin to spoil.
Photo courtesy of Mike Coombes, from SXC.hu
Almonds are some of the most popular nuts in North America, probably because of their smooth texture and the amazing aroma of their oils. They're a member of the peach family -see the resemblance of the nut to the peach pit?-, and they originally came from Asia but spread to the Mediterranean where they're grown now.
As far as the health benefits of almonds, they have the most calcium of any tree nut. They are also a great source of potassium and protein, magnesium, niacin, selenium, iron, zinc, manganese, folate and vitamins E and A. They have good monounsaturated fats and omega fatty acids. Almonds help maintain blood sugar levels and normalize fat in the blood stream.
As with most nuts, you have to store almonds in an air-tight container away from humidity, or can be refrigerated or frozen.
You might not be surprised to hear that Brazil nuts get their name from where they're grown- the rain forest in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. They've become increasingly expensive to buy because when the rain forest is clear cut for crops (mostly for cow feed crops and for grazing room), Brazil nut trees are part of the destruction.
One of our friends let us know that Brazil nuts help to prevent prostate cancer because of the high levels of selenium. I don't believe in taking one food to fix one illness, but taking all the other health benefits of Brazil nuts into consideration, they could be great for preventing cancers.
They have a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids, and good monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and some saturated fats. They have a ton of calcium, protein, fiber and potassium, and good magnesium and selenium, and some zinc, iron, and vitamins E and C.
Cashews have become the vegan answer to all things creamy because they can be pureed into a delicious mash of slightly sweet and perfectly textured nut butter. Raw vegans use them for vegan whipped cream, vegan ranch dressing, vegan cheeses, vegan mousse, and much more.
The nut actually comes from a tropical tree that is related to poison ivy and comes from South America, Africa, Asia and India.
Cashews are a great source of protein, magnesium, fiber, and monounsaturated fats. They also have vitamin K, calcium, iron, folate, zinc, and selenium.
Chestnuts are probably most well known for being "roasted on an open fire," and they deserve top billing in the holiday song and on every street corner in Europe during the winter. When you roast them, you bring out the sweet flavor and soft, bread-like texture of the chestnuts.
Chestnuts are high in vitamins C and A, and have good calcium, thiamine, riboflavin, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. They help the body resist infection and metabolize food better.
Coconuts are often thought of as fruit, but technically they are a nut. You can drink the water that rests in the inside of a fresh raw coconut, you can eat the soft flesh, you can puree the inside for coconut milk, and you can dry coconut and eat it the way most people are familiar.
They are high in saturated fat, but when it is eaten with a diet that has plenty of omega-3s, it is very healthy for you. Coconuts don't have the same high protein content as the others, but its oil has been cultivated and widely appreciated recently for its help with cardiovascular and metabolic health.
Coconut water is not only refreshing and delicious, but it's also packed with potassium and electrolytes. It's nature's version of Gatorade, but without the high fructose corn syrup.
I love the smoky, sweet flavor of hazelnuts, and they can be used in tons of delicious recipes, including in nutella, cookies, coffee, and even savory dishes.
Hazelnuts come from the Mediterranean and Balkans, and are often called filberts, which is actually another nut entirely, because they are made into hybrids.
They are full of really high quality protein and has low saturated fats, most are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. They are also a good source of calcium, potassium, and magnesium and have iron, and vitamins A, C, and K. Hazelnuts store well in the fridge in an airtight container, for up to a year.
Macadamias are produced mainly in Hawaii, but did originate in the rain forest in Australia. They are shaped like tiny globes and have a crunchy texture and sweet flavor.
They have a lower amount of protein than the others, but are high in the healthful fats. When roasted, their B6 is destroyed, but they still do have good potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Macadamias can actually be stored at room temperature without rotting.
I love chocolate chip cookies with chopped macadamia nuts, and after visiting Hawaii, I found the glory of macadamia nut pancakes.
Even though peanuts are technically legumes, we include them on this list because they function well as a nut. They were used by Indians in Brazil more than 5000 years ago, and then they were spread to Asia, Africa, India, and the USA.
Peanuts have tons of high quality protein, and with their fats and carbohydrates, they are good for energy. Most of their fat is mono- or polyunsaturated. Also, they have good niacin (B3), calcium, and vitamin E.
Peanuts have the most resveratrol of the nuts, and more than grapes, and they have been found to reduce bad LDL cholesterol in the blood. Peanuts can also be stored at room temperature, whereas most others retain more health benefits of nuts by being refrigerated.
Pecans come from Mexico and the United States, and were eaten well before the US was colonized by Europeans. I sometimes get the shape of pecans and walnuts confused, as they look so similar. People love to use pecans in sweet desserts like pecan pie, cookies, and dessert bars.
They are high in vitamin E, calcium, potassium, and have almost all good poly- and monounsaturated fats. They have been found to help lower LDL cholesterol levels.
If you're ever looking for a good vegan pecan pie, try the one in Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's Joy of Vegan Baking. I have found it can be hard to find a vegan recipe that sets well, but hers is perfect.
Pignolia are the tiny nuts in pine cones on pine trees! But, not all pine trees have edible pine nuts, there are only a few species that carry them. My family always calls them pignolia, which is the Mediterranean translation. They are normally produced in colder climates, and people have to climb these trees to pick the pine cones.
There are also some Asian pine trees that are being cut down for wood whose pine cones are sold for their nuts. For both of these reasons, pignolia can be expensive and hard to find.
They have good thiamine (B1), tons of protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamins E, A, and K. It is best to store your pignolia in the freezer to prevent rotting.
Pistachios are ancient; they were grown at least 4000 years ago in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa. California now produces the most pistachios. People love eating them directly out of their shells, and their flesh is often used in ice creams, biscotti, and other desserts.
Pistachios have great calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A. They also have good ascorbic acid and protein.
One of my favorite ways to use pistachios is in my traditional holiday biscotti recipe, cranberry pistachio. You can find it in my Vegan Christmas Cookies ebook.
Evidence of walnuts has been found back to mesolithic times in Iraq and they are now produced from Europe to Asia. When nutritional magazines list the health benefits of nuts, walnuts are often first on the list because of their essential fatty acids.
Walnuts are extremely healthy as they have good protein, calcium, iron, and a good balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats (5-1.) They also have thiamine (B1), some varieties have good vitamin E. Walnuts are best kept cool in the refrigerator because the oil in them is very delicate and spoils quickly.
Read more about the health benefits of walnuts here.