It’s easy to make assumptions about food. Most of us already have some idea about which foods are healthy and which ones we should be avoiding.
But, often the relationship between food and health isn’t as obvious as it seems. So, here’s one question that I’ve seen asked time and time again: Are walnuts good for you?
After all, as a food group, nuts really are subject to a lot of debate.
Some people feel that you should avoid them. After all, they are pretty high in calories and in fat. Plus, if you have flavored versions, you’re often taking in a lot of salt and artificial ingredients at the same time. To make matters worse, people often tend to eat far too many nuts in a sitting.
But, are nuts actually as bad as all that or… are walnuts good for you?
Let’s start with nuts themselves.
The Connection Between Nuts, Nutrition and Health
To talk about nuts, we really have to put aside that age-old assumption that all fat is bad for you. That perspective is still really common in modern nutritional advice, but it simply isn’t accurate. If nothing else, the dangers of fat have been seriously overemphasized. At the same time, most people underestimate the risks of sugar.
Nuts are incredibly versatile. You can use them as a snack, as an ingredient in a meal or sprinkled on top of just about anything. At the same time, you can find raw and roasted versions, as well as spiced and salted nuts. You can even do your own roasting and spicing if you are so inclined.
There are also many options to choose from, each with their own nutritional profile.
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Data is for 1 ounce of nuts and sourced from SELF Nutrition Data
With that in mind, nuts make a lot of sense as a food choice. You are eating something that is very natural, that isn’t processed and doesn’t have artificial ingredients (as long as you avoid the flavored versions). Nuts are also a good source of protein, so they are much more filling than many of the other snacks on the market.
Even more importantly, researchers have found a strong connection between nuts and health.
For example, one study indicated that eating nuts every day can increase life length (1). While the study was observational, the outcomes strongly agree with what many other researchers have found.
A key reason that nuts can help people to live longer is that they play a key role in lowering cholesterol and triglycerides. As such, they promote heart health and decrease the risk of heart disease (2,3,4).
Nuts also appear to be especially good for the brain, because they contain important healthy fats (5,6). This benefit of nuts is especially important because people often struggle to get fish into their diets, while nuts are incredibly easy to eat.
Research has even indicated that nuts may help protect against nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, along with other compounds found in fish, coffee, avocado and olive oil (7).
Nuts and Weight Loss
Perhaps the biggest argument against eating nuts is that they will make you gain weight. But actually, that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, research shows that people who add nuts to their diet actually lose weight instead of gaining it (8,9,10).
This actually makes a lot of sense.
As I mentioned before, nuts are a good source of protein and they tend to be fairly satisfying. So, snacking on nuts could easily help reduce cravings for unhealthy foods and make people less hungry.
That’s a great outcome for anyone actively trying to lose weight. In fact, the site Well-Being Secrets includes walnuts on their list of surprising nuts for weight loss.
Are Walnuts Good for You?
So, in general, nuts are a good option for health – as long as you are eating them in moderation. But, what about walnuts specifically?
To be honest, there is a lot less research done on walnuts than I would like. Most of the research studies out there were conducted on almonds or on nuts in general. Nevertheless, there are still some interesting things about walnuts.
For one thing, some researchers suggest that walnuts may be the best nut to promote overall heart health. This benefit comes from the fact that walnuts contain more antioxidants than other types of nuts, and those antioxidants were also better quality (11).
Research has also indicated that eating around a handful of walnuts every day can help to improve concentration, memory and processing speed in the brain (12). Other research has also shown benefits to the brain from some of the compounds in walnuts (13,14,15,16).
The benefits of walnuts aren’t really too surprising, because walnuts have a desirable profile of healthy fats, along with other important nutrients and polyphenols that can contribute to health (17).
There has also been some indication that walnuts may play a role in combating cancer. The key reason for this is that walnuts contain a range of plant compounds, many of which may help prevent cancer (18).
Indeed, observational studies have found an association between nut consumption and lower cancer risk (19,20), although similar studies specifically on walnuts have not been conducted.
Nevertheless, considerably more research is needed before we can be certain whether or not walnuts truly do have a role in preventing cancer. Still, even a potential relationship does reinforce the advantages of eating walnuts.
Nutrients in Walnuts
In general, nuts are nutritionally dense, with a considerable amount of beneficial compounds from plants, including polyphenols (21) and antioxidants (22). That nutritional profile is one of the key reasons that nuts may offer so many different health benefits (23).
That outcome is especially true for walnuts, particularly because of the healthy fatty acids that I mentioned earlier (24,25,26).
The most interesting of these fatty acids is the compound alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is not common in other types of nuts (27). ALA has been linked to a range of benefits, including decreased heart disease risk (28,29,30).
Finally, walnuts do contain other vitamins and minerals that can contribute to health. These include copper, phosphorus, vitamin E, vitamin B6 and manganese (31).
In general, walnuts consist of around 65% fat, 15% protein and 20% fiber (32). Now, that fat content might seem a bit concerning, but even so, walnuts are more likely to contribute to weight loss than to weight gain (33,34).
And indeed, the stigma surrounding fat isn't accurate anyway, a topic that Wellness Mama discusses in considerable detail.
Realistically, walnuts are only likely to make you gain weight if you don’t account for the energy intake in your diet.
How Much Should You Eat?
The simple answer to ‘are walnuts good for you?’ is that yes, they are. But, the question remains, how much should you eat?
Like any nut, walnuts do contain a decent amount of calories, so eating too many could potentially contribute to weight gain.
The outcomes of research vary considerably, but most studies show health benefits as the result of around 1 ounce of nuts per day. In the case of walnuts, that’s roughly 7 whole walnuts (35). For most people, that’s probably a good amount, regardless of whether you are eating them as a snack or adding them to a meal.
Regardless of how many walnuts you eat, the most important thing is to simply take your consumption into account. This might mean decreasing your calorie intake elsewhere. After all, even healthy food can still have negative consequences for health if you don’t watch your consumption.
The health benefits of nuts also apply to walnuts specifically. In fact, the nutritional profile of almonds suggests that they may be healthier than other types of nuts.
The health benefits of nuts, in general, make them a great addition to the diet – and walnuts may well be the unsung hero of the nut world.
But, this doesn’t mean that you should rely just on walnuts. Nuts vary in their nutritional components and in some of their implications for health. Because of this, the most powerful approach is to mix up the nuts in your diet (depending on which nuts you actually like, of course).
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Here's a question for you, what's your favorite choice of nut? Why?