A sharp mind and a healthy brain are key to a quality life. The good news is that supporting brain health can be as simple as snacking on delicious foods — and one snack stands out above the rest, according to experts.
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Physicians and registered dietitians agree that walnuts have nutritional qualities that support your noggin. This small tree nut is easy to include in your diet and can make a big difference when it comes to memory and cognition.
Why Walnuts Are Good for Your Brain
1. They're Rich in Antioxidants
"Walnuts are a rich source of phytochemicals, which include flavonoids and polyphenols," says Elliana Rose, MD, a doctor at Audiology Research. "They have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and are important for brain health and injury recovery."
These plant compounds act as powerful antioxidants in the body. Eating walnuts increases post-meal antioxidant activity and reduces the oxidative damage of LDL cholesterol, per a small January 2015 study in the Nutrition Journal, which was partially supported by a grant from the California Walnut Commission.
Keeping your LDL cholesterol low and inflammation under control can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke, per Harvard Health Publishing.
As of 2020, about 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thankfully, research has found that lifestyle factors, including what you eat, are linked to a lower risk of this disease.
"The oil naturally found in walnuts has been found to protect brain cells in an early model of Alzheimer's disease," says Lauren Manaker RDN, LD, registered dietitian and author of Fueling Male Fertility.
Cell-based studies have found promising results after exposing human brain cells to walnut oil. The walnut oil was shown to protect cells from oxidative stress, enhance brain cell function and reduce the formation of markers of Alzheimer's progression known as beta-amyloid, per the April 2022 study in Nutrients. The results are preliminary, but prove the need for further research on walnuts and Alzheimer's prevention.
"Walnuts are the only nut to provide an excellent source of the essential omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid fatty acid," says Manaker.
An ounce of walnuts has 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with promising potential to improve low-grade inflammation in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, according to an August 2015 review in Biomed Research International.
3. They're Tied to Better Memory
Forgetting things might seem like a part of getting older, but snacking on walnuts could help improve your memory, even as you age.
Walnuts contain several essential fats, including oleic acid, which is linked to improved memory and synaptic transmission," says Susan Blake, MD, an expert in immunology internal medicine and surgery.
People who ate less than a handful of walnuts per day were observed to perform better cognitive function tests, including those for memory, according to a December 2014 study in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging.
How Many Walnuts Should You Eat to Get the Benefits?
The number of walnuts needed to promote brain health might not be more than a handful or two. The beneficial effects of walnuts found in the studies above ranged from 1 ounce (about 14 walnut halves) to 1 cup.
While walnuts are high in antioxidants, protein, omega-3s and other beneficial fatty acids, they're also high in calories — an ounce has 186 calories — so you'll want to stick to 1-ounce portions at a time.
Try some of these delicious ways to eat walnuts every day:
- Sprinkle them on oatmeal
- Add them to granola
- Stir them into yogurt
- Bake them into bread or cookies
- Top them on salad for crunch
While eating walnuts is a great way to support your brain health, take a look at your other habits as well. Physical activity, limiting alcohol, staying away from smoking, a healthy diet and keeping your brain sharp with activities to challenge your mind can all help reduce your risk, per the National Institutes of Health.
- Nutrition Journal: "Effect of a walnut meal on postprandial oxidative stress and antioxidants in healthy individuals"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Lowering cholesterol protects your heart and brain, regardless of your age"
- Centers for Disease Control: "Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias"
- Nutrients: "Walnut Oil Reduces Aβ Levels and Increases Neurite Length in a Cellular Model of Early Alzheimer Disease"
- USDA: "Walnuts"
- Biomed Research International: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Early Prevention of Inflammatory Neurodegenerative Disease: A Focus on Alzheimer's Disease"
- Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: "Dietary supplementation of walnuts improves memory deficits and learning skills in transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease"
- National Institutes of Health: "Combination of healthy lifestyle traits may substantially reduce Alzheimer’s"