Nuts are packed with nutrients that can support the health of your noggin. But certain noshing habits could be shortchanging you.
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"Nuts have an optimal fatty acid profile for the brain, including generally high concentrations of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. And walnuts in particular have omega-3 fatty acids," which are excellent for your brain, explains Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, author of the Eat Clean, Stay Lean series and The Superfood Rx Diet.
They're also rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that can support your health from head to toe, including fiber, vitamin E, magnesium, thiamin and zinc. And when your body as a whole is healthy, your brain will reap the benefits.
Before you go nuts with eating them though, take a look at these common mistakes. Making them could mean you're getting less brain bang for your buck.
1. Choosing Overly Salty or Sugary Nuts
Salt and sugar are often used to give nuts a flavor boost. But regularly getting too much sodium or added sugar can have a negative effect on cognitive health.
High sodium intake is tied to a higher dementia risk, per a May 2020 Journal of Alzheimer's Disease review. And excessive sugar consumption has been shown to up the odds for Alzheimer's, dementia and stroke, found an August 2021 study in the Journal of the Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.
Fix it: One option is to stick with plain, unsalted nuts — they're typically made without added salt or sugar. But if you like your nuts salted, it's also fine to look for lower-sodium options made with 50 percent less salt, Bazilian says. (Just make sure you're staying below your recommended daily sodium intake for the day.)
Try to limit your consumption of candied nuts, which are often packed with sugar.
Another idea? Experiment with flavoring plain nuts at home, so you can control the amount of salt and sugar that gets added. Try tossing them with herbs or spices, chopped fresh garlic, citrus zest or even a dusting of cocoa powder.
2. Not Eating Them Often Enough
Nuts will do your brain the most good when you eat them regularly. Followers of the MIND diet, a low-sodium Mediterranean-style diet, had the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease and dementia when they consumed nuts, seeds and legumes five or more times per week, according to findings in the February 2015 issue of Alzheimer's & Dementia.
Fix it: Make it a point to work nuts into your diet most days. A simple handful makes for a satisfying snack, but that's not your only option. Bazilian recommends:
3. Not Paying Attention to Portion Size
Nuts are known for being calorie-dense. A 1.5-ounce serving of almonds has 246 calories, while the same amount of cashews has 236 calories.
Grab handfuls throughout the day or snack straight from the container, and you easily run the risk of going over your calorie budget for the day, says Alisa Bloom, MPH, RDN, a nutrition expert and health and wellness coach based in Chicago.
That could increase your chances for gaining excess weight, which is tied to a greater likelihood of cognitive decline and dementia, according to a September 2017 study in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.
Fix it: Be mindful about how many nuts you're eating. "The research shows mostly around 1.5 ounces is what's most associated with health benefits," Bazilian says.
Measure out a serving (1.5 ounces is a generous handful) and place your nuts in a cup or bowl instead of eating them from the canister or bag. Using nuts as a salad, oatmeal or yogurt topper? Stick with 1 or 2 tablespoons, Bloom recommends.
4. Only Eating Peanuts or Peanut Butter
Peanuts and PB serve up plenty of healthy fats and vitamin E. But making them your only go-to means you'll miss out on the nutrients their crunchy cousins have to offer.
Case in point? Walnuts are the only nut with significant levels of omega-3 plant fats, which fight cognition crushers like oxidative stress and inflammation, Bazilian says.
Brazil nuts offer powerful antioxidants like selenium, while almonds offer calcium — a mineral that may be beneficial for memory, says Bloom.
Fix it: Keep several types of nuts on hand and enjoy a different pick each day. (Store them in the refrigerator or freezer to increase their shelf life — the fat in nuts will go rancid more quickly at room temperature.) Make a peanut butter and banana smoothie on Monday, snack on almonds on Tuesday, and add walnuts to your salad on Wednesday, for instance.
5. Not Buying Certain Nuts Organic
Exposure to certain pesticides could increase the risk for cognitive dysfunction, Alzheimer's disease and dementia, according to a June 2020 review in Toxicology Letters. In particular, the chemicals used to grow conventional almonds, cashews, peanuts, and pistachios are thought to pose potential health risks.
Fix it: Consider buying organic nuts when possible. "The more we can lower a toxic burden risk, even for a healthy food, the better," Bloom says.
But if organic isn't an option, don't let that stop you from eating nuts altogether. "Organic is a great idea if you can afford it and if the nuts are fresh," Bazilian says. "But in the grand scheme of things, you'll get more benefits from getting the nutrients of [conventional] nuts rather than avoiding nuts."
- Mayo Clinic: "Improve brain health with the MIND diet"
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: "Link Between Dietary Sodium Intake, Cognitive Function, and Dementia Risk in Middle-Aged and Older Adults: A Systematic Review"
- Journal the Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease: "Sugar in Beverage and the Risk of Incident Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Stroke: A Prospective Cohort Study"
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "MIND Diet Associated with Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease"
- Proceedings of the Nutrition Society: "The relationship between obesity and cognitive health and decline"
- Toxicology Letters: "Pesticides, cognitive functions and dementia: A review"