The best nut to crackdown on chronic disease risk?

Among all the foods you could reach for when you need a between-meal snack, nuts are among the best you could choose.

For one thing, there are so many varieties! Boredom will never be a problem. And each one offers its own important health benefits. For example, hazelnuts are great for your skin and hair and help control blood sugar.

Nuts are a staple food of the Mediterranean diet that protects the heart, controls inflammation and wards off cancer.

While almonds are reported to be a big favorite, my favorite and a superstar reported to help reduce numerous disease-risk factors, including cholesterol and premature aging, is the humble walnut.

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The food of the gods

During early Roman times, the walnut was considered a food for the gods. The English walnut we know today is actually from India but was named “English” for the merchants that carried it with them and used it in trade around the world.

A walnut is actually an edible seed. Crack open the hard shell, and you’ll see two halves that, with their crinkly surface appearance, resemble the human brain. Maybe for this reason, walnuts have long been thought of as “brain food.”

Research shows that the neuroprotective compounds in walnuts support brain health and even enhance cognitive and motor functioning as we age. Those compounds include vitamin E, folate, melatonin, omega-3 fats and antioxidants.

Also, the form of vitamin E in walnuts is unusually beneficial. Instead of being present in the form of alpha -tocopherol, the vitamin E is in the form of gamma-tocopherol. In studies of cardiovascular health in men, this form of the vitamin was found to provide significant protection from heart disease.

Four more ways walnuts keep you healthy

#1 Healthy heart and blood pressure. Research shows that 6 grams of the amino acid l-arginine, found in walnuts, triggers nitric oxide secretion in the arteries, which relaxes smooth muscle for better blood flow. It also has anti-inflammatory effects on arterial walls.

Walnuts are also a rich source of alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which is known to improve artery function.

#2 Protection against diabetes. Within the first three months of adding one-quarter cup of walnuts to their daily diet, overweight adults with type 2 diabetes had significant reductions in fasting insulin levels, compared to those who did not eat walnuts.

#3 Controls metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a constellation of negative health conditions including high blood pressure, fat around the midsection and high cholesterol, that lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Snacking on walnuts can help you maintain a healthy weight over time, which will help avoid the other pieces of metabolic syndrome. In one review of 31 trials, people who included them in their diet lost about 1.4 more pounds and half an inch more from their waist than those who did not. They also felt fuller after meals.

#4 Anti-cancer benefits. Walnuts contain an unusual combination of antioxidant families found in only a few foods, including quinones, tannins and flavonoids. In combination, these antioxidants are powerful free radical scavengers.

In a study with mice that were programmed to develop prostate cancer, researchers at the UC Davis Cancer Center found that those who ate walnuts showed a much slower progression of tumor growth and of the disease in general.

How to store and enjoy walnuts

As is true of most nuts, walnuts can turn rancid over time, because of their oil content.

Whether shelled or unshelled, they should be stored in an airtight container in your refrigerator or freezer.

As far as eating walnuts, the possibilities are really endless. Use them in salads, as a snack, over ice cream, cottage cheese or yogurt. Add them to cereal and bake them into muffins and breads.

One especially tasty way to use these nuts is to incorporate them into a pesto sauce with basil, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice … great over summertime pasta!

One word of caution

If you have a known allergy to tree nuts, you absolutely cannot eat walnuts.

Similarly to peanuts, tree nut allergies can trigger some severe symptoms, including itching and swelling of the mouth, throat and eyes, nausea and diarrhea, shortness of breath and even anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that affects breathing and can lead to shock.

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.