Walnuts: The Unsung Heroes of the Tree Nut Family

Walnuts are often the unsung heroes of the tree nut family. While almonds, cashews, and pecans are attractively packaged and easy to grab in the snack aisle, walnuts seem to be hidden among the baking ingredients a few aisles away. We have also witnessed the growing popularity of almond butter and have laughed at the hilarious pistachio ad campaigns. Now—don’t get me wrong—these other nuts are healthy and tasty choices...but poor old mister walnut doesn’t get enough love.

And trust me, he has a lot to offer up.

In fact, as walnut harvest (late August to late November) finishes up, these freshly picked and packaged nuts flood the grocery stores, so here are a few reasons to grab a bag as well as a few fun ways to gobble them up.

The “Nut”rient Breakdown

Walnuts are an excellent source of vitamin B1, vitamin B6, folic acid, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, and monounsaturated fat. They are also the only tree nut that is a significant source of ALA, the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. These essential fats help decrease inflammation, are important for cognitive functioning, and help to reduce the risk for arthritis, cancer and heart disease. While walnuts provide 2.6 grams of ALA per serving, the “nutty” runner-up, pecans, provides only 0.5 grams per serving. Nut-so shabby ;)

The Benefits

Oodles of research studies have shown that all nuts, including walnuts, can help lower unhealthy cholesterol in your blood and, as a result, reduce your risk for heart disease.

When eaten as part of a Mediterranean diet (think fish, oils, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds), they reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Walnuts themselves decrease unhealthy physical reactions to stress and improve mood in males. They have also been shown to help reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes in women and stabilize blood sugar.

A Walnut-ty Idea for Everyone

To reap the benefits of walnuts, try eating an ounce—about a handful—per day. That’s about 12 walnut halves. Need some inspiration? Check out the California Walnut Commission’s delicious recipes and my simple tips below:

  • Raw: If you’re new to eating walnuts, I first suggest simply grabbing a raw handful. You’ll see that their flavor is fruity, earthy and tart. Darker walnuts have a sweeter, caramel flavor. However, they actually cost less in the grocery store than lighter varieties. Why? Retail stores think that they are less aesthetically pleasing. If you do plan to give raw walnuts a try, make sure you store them in the refrigerator to keep them from going rancid; they will stay fresh for up to one full year.
  • Toasted: For a twist on the raw flavor, try toasting walnuts. Applying heat helps intensify their flavor, bringing out a meaty taste. Toss toasted walnuts on a fresh salad or in low-fat yogurt. They also pair great with whole wheat ravioli or serve as a delicious garnish on blended soups.
  • Red Pepper Walnut Spread: When you’re ready to whip up a new dish, try my Red Pepper Walnut Spread. Use it like hummus and spread it on practically anything (burgers, fish, veggies, and so on).
  • Angel Hair Pasta with Roasted Pumpkin, Sage, and Walnuts: When you’re ready to whip up a new dish, try my Angel Hair Pasta with Roasted Pumpkin, Sage and Walnuts. This fresh twist on traditional pasta is the perfect way to enjoy flavors of the fall. My kids were even singing its praises!

Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a peek. Where are the walnuts? Are they hidden or displayed proudly with their fellow tree nuts? By eating more of them and truly discovering their delicious flavors, we can honor ol' mister walnut and ensure that he no longer holds the title of unsung hero.

By Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, Health and Nutrition Expert for NBC’s Today Show and founder of Nourish Snacks.

Sources:

Jenkins, D.J.A., Hu, F.B., Tapsell, L.C., Josse, A.R. & Kendall, C.W.C (2008). Possible benefit of nuts in type 2 diabetes. The Journal of Nutrition, 138(9), 1752S-1756S.

Njike, V.Y., Ayettey, R., Petraro, P., Treu, J.A. & Katz, D.L. (2015). Walnut ingestion in adults at risk for diabetes: effects on body composition, diet quality, and cardiac risk measures. British Medical Journal Open Diabetes Research & Care, 3(1).

Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvado, J., Covas, M.-I., Corella, D., Aros, F., et al. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean Diet. The New England Journal of Medicine, 368, 1279-1290.

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