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Walnuts: Cracking the Case of Heart Health

Nuts have always been part of our daily diet recommendations. But they are dogged by their dark side – one that likely developed as a result of their ubiquity as an over-indulged in, high-calorie snack. They can be found in the ingredient list of many processed foods, are a perennial companion for chocolate, and end up in bottomless bowls at parties and bars across the country. And while nut consumption and production has risen sharply over the last decade, overall consumption of tree nuts – hard-shelled fruits of a plant, a category that excludes the peanut – is relatively low in the U.S.

Too bad. Tree nuts, in particular the walnut, are superior when it comes to heart health. The walnut’s claim to fame? It is brimming with unsaturated fats, notorious combatants of bad cholesterol levels, and it is crammed with omega-3 fatty acids, famously good for the heart.

Omega-3s are made up of a number of different fatty acids. The most well-known are known as DHA, EPA and ALA. Walnuts are an excellent source of ALA –  a 1-ounce serving has 2.5 grams. In fact, a diet including things like soy protein and nuts has been shown to lower LDL levels (the bad cholesterol) even more than statin drugs or a low-fat diet, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also provide fiber, vitamin E, cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, and (drumroll, please) they are satisfyingly delicious.

If you are focused on health heart, start thinking like a squirrel and take a crack at a nut that waves the flag of heart health: the walnut.

New Nut Research

Walnuts have been well-researched when it comes to their health benefits, and the research into their functional food potential continues to show promise. A 2010 study showed that adding walnuts to the daily diet of adults with Type 2 diabetes for two months significantly improved blood vessel health. Walnuts added to the diet improved “endothelial function”, an indicator of heart disease risk, lending evidence to the walnut’s potential role in diabetes prevention. Results of the study also indicate that walnuts earn their superfood status, especially when they are part of a Mediterranean diet.

Is there something in there? by Dawn Huczek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Dawn Huczek

In addition to their potential for Type-2 diabetes prevention, they have powerful antioxidant ability, and they have a great deal of cancer prevention potential. They have been found to control inflammation, influence gene expression, help reduce body fat, and boost fertility in men, according to published research. And, they have a hidden advantage: they are effective at controlling appetite because of their powerful ability to satisfy and keep us feeling full – one of the best payoffs we get for ingesting calories.

Replacement Strategy 

Rarely do we think of eating healthy by urging ourselves to simply “Eat!” But that’s sometimes just the advice we need to fill our nutritional gaps. Maintaining a healthy heart often accompanies a course of action of eliminating bad foods. But adding good foods, especially those that are known to improve important heart numbers by lowering LDLs, like walnuts, is an equally important strategy.

We mentioned nuts’ dark side – they are high in calories – so moderation is the key. Experts recommend 1-1 ½ ounces per day, or up to 20 walnut halves. Helping demolish the benefits of the nut are health sabotagers that love to cling to them, such as salt, sugar and chocolate, which can negate their nutritional power. At the same time, weight gain is not inevitable. In the diabetes study above, subjects did not gain weight. Instead, they used replacement strategies that helped them make room in their diets for the walnut calories.

The bottom line? Go nuts but keep your head. If you are eliminating cheese as a snack or on a salad, use walnuts as a stand-in. Reaching for a mid-day cookie? Swap with the walnut. Nuts can also come in handy when you are seeking something healthy that still provides a little crunch, or if you are eliminating proteins (think bacon) but desire a “meaty” flavor. Add walnuts to cereal, oatmeal, rice and quinoa, or try them in pizza (really!) when oily toppings are off limits.

If you are a bona fide nut nerd, consult the NuVal scale – one of the simplest ways of measureing nutrition (from 1 to 100), to judge your nut varieties in proper context. Walnuts set a high bar with a score of 82, followed by the almond (81). Contender coulda-beens include the pistachio (69) and the pecan (67). Consult this healthy nut slide show at Lifescript  for the run-down.

Love dry roasted? No problem. They usually have no additional oils and the same health benefits as raw. Even peanuts – not true nuts, but legumes – are relatively healthy in moderation, though they don’t measure up to the walnut’s nutritional advantages. They come in at 29 on the NuVal scale.

See the Mayo Clinic for a comprehensive list of nut benefits.

Mix It Up! Try These Walnut Recipe Ideas 

Eating Well’s Zucchini Walnut Loaf not to mention their Baked Apples with Dried Fruits &amp; Walnuts are perfect for ingredients profuse in the waning summer season.

Elevated Existence offers this Walnut Encrusted Salmon for an Omega-3 blast.


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