Let's Hear It For Walnuts
Small but mighty, the antioxidant-loaded nut goes from bakery sideliner to varsity health player.
Once dismissed as merely an optional ingredient to add crunch to baked goods, the walnut sat low in the nut pantheon. Now we know better. This tree nut, championed by the ancient Greeks for various medicinal purposes, is loaded with antioxidants, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats. No wonder you can’t spell nutrition without “nut.”
Like other tree nuts, walnuts are high in protein (4 grams in 1 ounce), fiber (about 2 grams) and magnesium (45 milligrams). They’re also rich in various B vitamins, vitamin E, phosphorus and the insomniac’s best friend, melatonin. When it comes to heart health, walnuts have a clear advantage over other nuts, as they contain the highest concentration of polyphenols, a kind of antioxidant that may help reduce the risk of heart disease and prostate and breast cancers. Walnuts also contain a significant amount (2.5 grams in 1 ounce) of alpha linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid with inflammation busting properties said to benefit heart and vascular health.
Walnuts can be purchased both raw and roasted as well as shelled or unshelled. Shelled walnuts often still have their white skin, which has a bit of a bitter taste, but resist the temptation to remove it. That skin contains high levels of phenols, tannins and flavonoids—all antioxidants that benefit your body inside and out. Because of their high fat content, walnuts (and other nuts) can become rancid quickly, especially if stored in humid or hot spots. Nuts that have been roasted with oil, which increases the fat content, have an even shorter shelf life. It’s best to keep walnuts in the freezer or, if you plan to eat them within a month, in the refrigerator.
Walnuts are most nutritious when enjoyed raw or dry-roasted and in small portions, as they are high in calories (185 calories per ounce). They can also be added to trail mix or muesli, pulverized and made into a crust on fish or meat, or used to add texture to pastas, risottos and soups. You can also purchase walnut butter and walnut oil. Note, however, that like olive oil, walnut oil has a low smoke point, so some experts recommend enjoying it cold—on salads, for example—rather than cooking with it. And, of course, walnuts still have their place in brownies and banana bread.
Did you know?
The ancient Greeks used walnuts for medicinal purposes, believing the nuts could treat bad breath, dog bites, colic and even hair loss, says culinary history expert Andrew F. Smith. They called walnuts kayron, which means “head,” because of the resemblance the shell has to a human skull and the nut to a brain.
Eating one-quarter cup of walnuts daily for three months significantly reduced fasting insulin levels in overweight adults with type 2 diabetes, compared to those who didn’t eat walnuts. —The Journal of Nutrition