• By Julie Stefanski
  • In 2021
  • February 3, 2021

Why Love Walnuts?

By Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND

Crunchy, nutty, with satisfying flavor and texture, walnuts add to our healthful cooking and eating pleasure.  But did you know that eating walnuts are good for heart health?


Celebrating heart health this month, we’re reminded of the many ways we can enjoy walnuts throughout the year to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.


Inflammation and Heart Health

While we can’t control our gender, age and genetics, we can lower our risks for heart disease with lifestyle choices.  On risk factor getting a lot of attention is inflammation.


We need inflammation to fight an infection or wear injured.  However, ongoing low-levels of inflammation, marked by elevated homocysteine and C-reactive protein, can create the perfect conditions for atherosclerosis—a plaque build-up in our arteries that narrows blood flow and can elevate blood pressure. Plaque can loosen causing blood clots, which are the main

cause of heart attacks and strokes.


We can get inflammation when unstable molecules, oxygen containing free radicals, form in our bodies.  This can happen naturally, from lifestyle choices and environmental exposure. Being overweight, obese, and especially carrying weight around the middle can both contribute to inflammation as well as decrease insulin sensitivity.  The more insulin resistant a person gets, that too can add to inflammation.


Science shows us that obesity increases a person’s rick of mortality, high blood pressure, cholesterol abnormalities like high LDLs (bad cholesterol), low HDL (good cholesterol) and high triglycerides, coronary heart disease and stroke (as well as type 2 diabetes, gallbladder disease and osteoarthritis).


Walnuts Can Help

The good news is that eating walnuts can help!


Walnuts a full of phytochemicals, antioxidants and copper and manganese in walnuts play an active role in combating free radicals, unstable molecules which can contribute to inflammation.


We can get more phytochemicals when we replace replacing animal protein with plant-based protein from walnuts.  Research has shown that eating a serving of process or unprocessed red meat a day, increased the risk of heart disease by 12%.  Displacing saturated fat from animal proteins with unsaturated fats can decreases our overall risk of heart disease, stroke and heart attack.


Vitamin E, an anti-oxidant in walnuts, is perhaps most known for its ability to open blood vessels, prevent components in the blood from sticking to the vessel walls and prevent platelets in the blood from clumping.  Walnuts are notably high in gamma tocopherol, a less researched form of vitamin E that may be more active than once thought in decreasing inflammation.


The good unsaturated fat in walnuts can lower LDLs (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides.  Alpha-linolenic acid, the plant-based version of omega 3s, is part of the good fats.  In the body, omega 3s helps our blood vessels relax which can reduce blood pressure and inflammation.


Walnuts can help with weight loss.


The fat in just a few walnuts can help you feel fuller lessening blood sugar ups and downs between meals.  This keeps your energy levels good and lessens our need eat and can reduce cravings or our need for quick fixes with sweets and refined carbohydrates.  Sugar and refined carbohydrates can zap our energy and contribute to inflammation.


Walnuts contain manganese and thiamin (B1) necessary for metabolizing what we eat into the building blocks for making energy, or ATP.  And the process of making energy involves copper, folate and thiamin, which walnuts deliver.


Having energy helps us be active, burn calories and build and maintain muscle.  Your heart benefits by getting stronger and more conditioned. With just 30-minutes of activity five days a week to help lower blood pressure, triglycerides and raise high density lipoproteins (HDL)—good cholesterol.


Getting More Doesn’t Take Much


Because walnuts are 66% percent fat, they are calorie dense.  In one ounce or 14 walnut halves, there will be 186 calories.  Eating too many calories, even those with heart healthy benefits, can add up to weight gain.


Raw walnuts doesn’t expose heat sensitive nutrients like healthy fats, vitamin E and antioxidants to roasting, toasting or baking which can degrade some of the benefit.  Heated or raw, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy walnuts.


Choosing unsalted walnuts helps limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 mg/day which can reduce your risk of high blood pressure.  And, while candied walnuts are undeniably delicious, they should be used sparingly to limit the calories from added sugar.


Phytic acid is in all nuts, seed, legumes and grains.  The amount in walnuts is variable, but will interfere with our absorption of zinc, iron and to a lesser degree calcium.  But this consequence doesn’t negate the overall benefits of walnuts.


Make It Better With Walnuts


Take your pick—English or slightly bitter black walnuts.  Either choice can make a variety nutrient-dense foods interesting and tasty.


Walnuts make great finger-food snacks in trail mixes or simply on their own.  However, my favorite ways to include walnuts are stirred into yogurt, topping oatmeal or toasted for salads and vegetables.  Ground into a nut butter spread on apple or pear slices or an herb pesto is delicious.  And, walnuts add a special touch baked into zucchini and pumpkin bread.


In cooking, use walnut butter to lessen the amount of butter—a source of saturated fat which can elevate blood cholesterol.  Add walnuts pieces to cookie dough in place of sugary chips and candies.  Try replacing fats from animals which are notable sources of saturated fat. Plant-based fats also contain protein which helps us meet our needs.


It’s exciting to make a dish that is plant-forward, plant-based or even vegan (vegetarian).  This style of eating can help us size down the amount and frequency we eat animal proteins. One of my favorite recipes is for Lemon Oregano Walnut Balls.  But, I also like these balls seasoned with ground with cumin, chili garlic and herbs.  Shaped like small meat balls, they satisfy the texture, savory flavor and fun of meatballs.

Flavorful and healthy walnut oil drizzled over steamed veggies like asparagus, salads of endive or baby greens, grilled radicchio or a roasted garlic and cauliflower soup makes my taste buds say yum!


And, isn’t “yum” what is all about?


Libby Mills, MS, RDN, LDN, FAND is Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  She makes eating healthy fun and easy through nutrition counseling, cooking classes and scrumptious recipes. Visit LibbyMillsNutrition.com to learn more about Libby’s classes, speaking and writing.  Mondays at 12:15pm ET, listen to her radio show Libby’s Luncheonette on WCHE1520AM.