I am a 25-year-old woman who has decided to become a vegetarian. I am thus eating quite a lot of nuts, including almonds. I find them rather bitter and hard. Vegetarian friends have suggested that I leave them for a while to soak in water. Is this beneficial, or perhaps does it reduce their vitamin and mineral content? P.C., Haifa
Dr. Gil Joseph Shahar, an expert on nutritional sciences at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, answers:
I could give a short answer or a long answer. Here is a long answer:
Almonds and nuts are not like fruits; there is a fundamental botanical difference between them and the others. There are definite ways to eat almonds and nuts so as to get the most from them. The fruit of the almond is a drupe, consisting of an outer hull and a hard shell with the seed (which is not a true nut) inside.
Each fruit has a core. The nucleus will grow into a new tree if the kernel is buried in the soil and receives the appropriate conditions. In almost all of the fruits we eat, the kernel or seed is in the center of the fruit and wrapped in the thick layer we eat. This is the case with apples, apricots, avocados, grapes, watermelons, lychees, kiwifruit and more.
Almonds and nuts are different. They are the nucleus themselves. In fact almonds and walnut trees do not produce fruit, but rather sprout seeds that are wrapped in the shell. The seeds of the fruit are essentially different from the layer that surrounds them (which we usually eat). The nuclei contain many enzymes, fatty acids, proteins and many minerals – all the components needed to grow a new tree.
For a nucleus to grow into a tree, several processes must occur in the nucleus that ultimately cause the decay of the nucleus and the growth of a tree. If these processes occur too soon – for example when there is not enough rainfall – it will not grow and grow; instead, it will die due to the lack of water.
So to prevent the start of the tree growth process before the external conditions have matured, the enzymes in the nucleus that are responsible for the start of the process are inactive due to molecules called enzyme inhibitors. They trigger the penetration of large quantities of water into the seed, so they “understand” that there is enough rain and the tree will succeed.If the seed is exposed to only a little water, the enzymes will not be activated.
If activated, the enzymes produce antioxidants and vitamins essential to the nucleus to begin the growth of the tree. In other words, after the water enters the nucleus, the amount of vitamins and antioxidants increases significantly, often hundreds of times.
The enzymes not only increase the amount of antioxidants in the nucleus, they also alter the spatial structure of the amino acids (proteins), making them easier to break down for the growing tree – and for us, they are more readily digestible and therefore absorbed faster, reducing the production of gas during digestion.
Many seeds, almonds and nuts have a substance called phytic acid that actually forms the reservoir of phosphorus and energy of the nucleus so that it will have available energy for the growth process. The problem with this acid is that it inhibits absorption of many minerals, especially zinc and iron, but also magnesium and calcium.
Vitamin C, incidentally, is found to reduce the effect of phytic acid on iron, so it is recommended to always put freshly squeezed lemon on tehina (made from sesame seeds) to reduce the effect of phytic acid on the absorption of iron from the seeds.
Many vegetarians and vegans consume large amounts of grains, almonds, nuts and legumes and suffer from nutritional deficiencies due to lack of mineral absorption; this is caused by the consumption of a large amount of the acid.
Even high-temperature cooking or evaporation of the nuclei neutralizes the toxicity of phytic acid, but this results in the significant loss of the vitamins and antioxidants.
So almonds should be eaten after they have been soaked in water if you want more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and more-complete digestion and absorption.
I recommended soaking almonds (and Brazil nuts) in water for atleast six hours before eating. For other nuts, soaking for about two hours is sufficient. Soaking too long will cause the nuts to be soft and lose their taste. The almonds and Brazil nuts (an excellent source of selenium) can be soaked at night and eaten the next day.
Since the water penetrates the almond nut, it is recommended that it be high-quality mineral water or water that underwent a purification process. Do the soaking in plastic containers – and only the amount of almonds and nuts you want to eat that day; if not, they spoil much faster. Store them in the refrigerator on that day only. I am a generally healthy male in my 40s. For the past 10 years, my stool has contained very large amounts of undigested foods (legumes, fibrous vegetables, seeds and more). Does this require any medical intervention and does the fact that my digestive system seemingly fails to digest these foods mean that I am not absorbing the beneficial properties of these foods and require a change of diet? D.E., via email
Prof. Yaron Niv, a leading gastroenterologist and head of the gastro department at the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva, replies:
The question is interesting. It is probably not a disorder involving the absorption of the food groups, sugars, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. The reason is that you have had the “problem” for a decade in good health and without any problems. The substances described are fiber and cellulose that are not digested and/or absorbed by the human digestive system. They are more important for their interaction with intestinal bacteria and intestinal motility (water absorption and the effect on the involuntary movement of the gastrointestinal muscle). The simplest and best way to ensure that there is no nutritional deficiency is a simple blood test – blood counts, albumin, cholesterol, triglycerides, minerals (including iron) and vitamins (mainly vitamin D, B-12, C, A). You should also consult a nutritionist to make sure your diet is balanced and healthy.
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