13 Proven Health Benefits of Walnuts

walnuts

 

 

To say that walnuts are a nutritious food is a bit of an understatement.

Walnuts provide healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals — and that’s just the beginning of how they may support your health.

In fact, there’s so much interest in this one nut that for the past 50 years, scientists and industry experts have gathered annually at the University of California, Davis, for a walnut conference discussing the latest walnut health research.

 

 

 

The most common variety of walnut is the English walnut, which is also the most studied type.

Here are 13 science-based health benefits of walnuts.

1. Rich in Antioxidants

Walnuts have higher antioxidant activity than any other common nut (1, 2).

This activity comes from vitamin E, melatonin and plant compounds called polyphenols, which are particularly high in the papery skin of walnuts (2, 3, 4).

A preliminary, small study in healthy adults showed that eating a walnut-rich meal prevented oxidative damage of “bad” LDL cholesterol after eating, whereas a refined-fat meal didn’t (3).

That’s beneficial because oxidized LDL is prone to build up in your arteries, causing atherosclerosis (3, 5).

Summary Walnuts are an excellent source of antioxidants that can help fight oxidative damage in your body, including damage due to “bad” LDL cholesterol, which promotes atherosclerosis.

2. Super Plant Source of Omega-3s

Walnuts are significantly higher in omega-3 fat than any other nut, providing 2.5 grams per 1-ounce (28-gram) serving (6, 7).

Omega-3 fat from plants, including walnuts, is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It’s an essential fat, meaning you have to get it from your diet.

According to the Institute of Medicine, adequate intake of ALA is 1.6 and 1.1. grams per day for men and women respectively. A single serving of walnuts meets that guideline (8).

Observational studies have shown that each gram of ALA you eat per day lowers your risk of dying from heart disease by 10% (9).

Summary Walnuts are a good source of the plant form of omega-3 fat, which may help reduce heart disease risk.

3. May Decrease Inflammation

Inflammation is at the root of many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, and can be caused by oxidative stress.

The polyphenols in walnuts can help fight this oxidative stress and inflammation. A subgroup of polyphenols called ellagitannins may be especially involved (4).

Beneficial bacteria in your gut convert ellagitannins to compounds called urolithins, which have been found to protect against inflammation (5).

ALA omega-3 fat, magnesium and the amino acid arginine in walnuts may also decrease inflammation (10, 11).

Summary Several plant compounds and nutrients in walnuts may help decrease inflammation, which is a key culprit in many chronic diseases.

4. Promotes a Healthy Gut

Studies suggest that if your gut is rich in health-promoting bacteria and other microbes (your gut microbiota), you’re more likely to have a healthy gut and good overall health.

An unhealthy composition of your microbiota can contribute to inflammation and disease in your gut and elsewhere in your body, increasing your risk of obesity, heart disease and cancer (12).

What you eat can significantly influence the makeup of your microbiota. Eating walnuts may be one way to support the health of your microbiota and your gut.

When 194 healthy adults ate 1.5 ounces (43 grams) of walnuts every day for eight weeks, they had an increase in beneficial, probiotic bacteria, compared to a period of not eating walnuts (13).

This included an increase in bacteria that produce butyrate, a fat that nourishes your gut and promotes gut health (14).

Summary Eating walnuts not only nourishes you but also the beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. This promotes the health of your gut and may help reduce disease risk.

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5. May Reduce Risk of Some Cancers

Test-tube, animal and human observational studies suggest that eating walnuts may reduce your risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate and colorectal cancers (15, 16, 17).

As noted earlier, walnuts are rich in the polyphenol ellagitannins. Certain gut microbes can convert these to compounds called urolithins (5, 18).

Urolithins can have anti-inflammatory properties in your gut, which may be one way that eating walnuts helps protect against colorectal cancer. Urolithins’ anti-inflammatory actions could also help protect against other cancers (5).

What’s more, urolithins have hormone-like properties that enable them to block hormone receptors in your body. This may help reduce your risk of hormone-related cancers, specifically breast and prostate cancers (5).

More human studies are needed to confirm the effects of eating walnuts on decreasing the risk of these and other cancers, as well as to clarify all the ways or mechanisms by which they may help.

Summary The polyphenols in walnuts may reduce your risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate and colorectal cancers. However, more human studies are needed to confirm this.

6. Supports Weight Control

Walnuts are calorie dense, but studies suggest that the energy absorbed from them is 21% lower than would be expected based on their nutrients (19).

What’s more, eating walnuts may even help control your appetite.

In a well-controlled study in 10 obese people, drinking a smoothie made with about 1.75 ounces (48 grams) of walnuts once a day for five days decreased appetite and hunger, compared to a placebo drink equal in calories and nutrients (20).

Additionally, after five days of consuming the walnut smoothies, brain scans showed that the participants had increased activation in a region of the brain that helped them resist highly tempting food cues, such as cake and French fries.

Even though larger and longer-term studies are needed, this provides some initial insight as to how walnuts may help control appetite and weight.

Summary Though they’re calorie-dense, you may not absorb all of the calories in walnuts. Additionally, they may even help you control appetite and hunger.

7. May Help Manage Type 2 Diabetes and Lower Your Risk

Observational studies suggest that one reason walnuts are linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes is that they help control weight. Excess weight increases your risk of high blood sugar and diabetes (21).

Yet, eating walnuts may help control blood sugar by mechanisms beyond their influence on weight control.

In a controlled study in 100 people with type 2 diabetes, consuming 1 tablespoon of cold-pressed walnut oil a day for 3 months, while continuing their usual diabetes medication and balanced diet, resulted in an 8% decrease in fasting blood sugar (22).

Additionally, the walnut oil users had about an 8% decrease in hemoglobin A1C (3-month average blood sugar). The control group showed no improvement in A1C or fasting blood sugar. Neither group had a change in their weight.

Summary Eating walnuts may help control type 2 diabetes and reduce your risk of the disease, as the nut may help control your weight. Walnuts might have more direct effects on blood sugar control as well.

8. May Help Lower Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Some studies suggest that eating walnuts may help lower blood pressure, including in people with high blood pressure and in healthy people when under stress. Other studies did not observe this effect (23, 24, 25).

Among other diets, the four-year PREDIMED study in about 7,500 adults at high risk of heart disease tested a Mediterranean diet supplemented with 1 ounce (28 grams) of mixed nuts daily, of which half were walnuts.

At the end of the study, people on the nut-enriched Mediterranean diet had a 0.65 mmHg greater decrease in diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) than people on a similar heart-healthy control diet who weren’t given nuts (25).

This suggests that nuts may slightly improve the blood pressure benefits of a heart-healthy diet. This is important, as small differences in blood pressure are thought to have a big impact on your risk of heart disease death (25).

Summary Some studies suggest that eating 1 ounce (28 grams) of nuts daily, including walnuts, as part of a heart-healthy diet may help improve blood pressure.

9. Supports Healthy Aging

As you age, good physical functioning is essential for maintaining your mobility and independence.

One thing that may help maintain your physical abilities is healthy eating habits.

In an observational study over 18 years in more than 50,000 older women, scientists found that those with the healthiest diets had a 13% lower risk of physical impairment. Walnuts were among the foods that made the strongest contribution to a healthy diet (26).

Though high in calories, walnuts are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, fats and plant compounds that may help support good physical functioning as you age (27).

Summary A healthy diet that includes walnuts may help preserve physical function, such as walking and self-care abilities as you age.

10. Supports Good Brain Function

It may be just a coincidence that the shell of a walnut looks like a tiny brain, but research suggests that this nut may indeed be good for your mind (1).

Animal and test-tube studies found that the nutrients in walnuts, including polyunsaturated fat, polyphenols and vitamin E, may help reduce oxidative damage and inflammation in your brain (28).

In a 10-month study of Alzheimer’s disease, mice fed 6–9% of their calories as walnuts (equal to 1–1.5 ounces or 28–45 grams daily in people) had significant improvements in learning skills, memory and anxiety reduction, compared to a walnut-free control group (29).

Observational studies in older adults have linked eating walnuts to better brain function, including faster processing speed, more mental flexibility and better memory (28).

Though these results are encouraging, more studies testing the effects of walnuts on brain function in humans are needed to draw firm conclusions.

Summary Walnuts contain nutrients that may help protect your brain from damaging inflammation and support good brain function as you age.

11. Supports Male Reproductive Health

Typical Western diets — high in processed foods, sugar and refined grains — have been linked to reduced sperm function (30).

Eating walnuts may help support sperm health and male fertility.

When 117 healthy young men included 2.5 ounces (75 grams) of walnuts daily in their Western-style diet for three months, they had improved sperm shape, vitality and mobility, compared to men not eating nuts (31).

Animal research suggests that eating walnuts may help protect sperm by reducing oxidative damage in their membranes (30).

Further studies are needed to confirm these benefits, but if you’re a man concerned about fertility, eating walnuts is a simple thing to try.

Summary Eating walnuts regularly may help counteract potential harmful effects of less-than-ideal eating habits on sperm health.

12. Improves Blood Fats

Elevated levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides have long been linked to an increased heart disease risk.

Regularly eating walnuts has been consistently shown to decrease cholesterol levels (32).

For example, in a recent study in 194 healthy adults, eating 1.5 ounces (43 grams) of walnuts daily for eight weeks produced a 5% decrease in total cholesterol, 5% decrease in LDL cholesterol and 5% decrease in triglycerides, compared to not eating walnuts (33).

The walnut eaters also had nearly a 6% decrease in apolipoprotein-B, which is an indicator of how many LDL particles are in your blood. When elevated, apolipoprotein-B is a major risk factor for heart disease (33).

Summary A daily 1.5-ounce (43-gram) serving of walnuts may help lower harmful cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which contribute to heart disease risk.

13. Widely Available and Easy to Add to Your Diet

You can find walnuts in any grocery store. Check for raw walnuts in the baking aisle, roasted walnuts in the nut aisle and cold-pressed walnut oil in the specialty oils section.

It’s helpful to understand how to convert the serving sizes used in studies, so you know how your portion sizes compare.

Each of the following are essentially equivalent servings, providing about 190 calories:

  • 1 ounce shelled walnuts = 28 grams = 1/4 cup = 12–14 halves = 1 small handful (6).

Though its simplest to eat walnuts one by one as a snack, there are plenty of tasty ways to use them in dishes.

Try walnuts:

  • Sprinkled on leafy green or fruit salads.
  • Finely ground in dips and sauces.
  • Chopped and used in whole-grain breads and scones.
  • Crushed to use as a coating on fish or chicken.
  • Served atop oatmeal or yogurt.
  • Chopped and added to wraps or pita sandwiches.
  • Roasted and added to a homemade trail mix.
  • Lightly browned in your favorite stir-fry recipe.
  • Roasted, chopped and used on pasta or vegetables.
  • As an oil in a vinaigrette dressing.
  • Or scout the Internet for additional tasty recipe ideas.

If you’re cooking for guests, make sure no one is allergic to walnuts before adding them to your dishes.

Summary Walnuts are easy to add to your diet since they’re widely available in stores and a great addition to countless dishes.

The Bottom Line

Walnuts are an exceptionally nutritious nut. They have higher antioxidant activity and significantly more healthy omega-3 fats than any other common nut.

This rich nutrient profile contributes to the many health benefits associated with walnuts, such as reduced inflammation and improved heart disease risk factors.

Scientists are still uncovering the many ways that walnuts’ fiber and plant compounds, including polyphenols, may interact with your gut microbiota and contribute to your health.

It’s likely you’ll keep hearing more about walnuts in the years to come as more studies will research their beneficial health effects.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to include them in your diet already today.

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