In ancient Rome, the health benefits of walnuts were considered otherworldly, thought as they were to be “Jupiter’s Nut” or “the food of the god.” As outlined by a Greek physician called Dioscorides who served in the Roman army more than two thousands years ago, walnuts could heal anything from baldness to breast disorders to acting an anti-inflammatory for abscesses and dog bites; to eye disorders and more, when mixed with the right combination of oils, herbs and fruits.
Walnuts and walnut “milk” made from walnuts ground with water were commonly consumed by citizens of the ancient republic. The ancients also thought that food which resemble body parts had curative properties on those parts and because the outer shell of the walnuts resembled the human brain, it was thought to be an effective cure for maladies of the head like dementia.
Originally from Persia, the walnut was given the royal treatment both for its healing and culinary properties but was only available to monarchs and noble people. Walnuts, thought to be “hot” in the Persian system which classifies foods as “hot” or “cold” similar to Indian Ayurveda, were believed to keep the body in balance and stave off illness in cold weather. Most notably, the ancient Persians believed that walnuts were beneficial in regulating blood sugar.
By the time walnuts made their way from near Asia to Rome to western Europe on silk and spice trade routes, their medicinal value was well established and, in the 16th century, English Herbalist John Gerard claimed walnuts were even a cure for the plague--an idea verified by other physicians of the day.
Were past walnut lovers on to something? Are walnuts really that good for you?
What modern science says
Walnuts’ nutrition is impressive: They are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, low in carbohydrates, and high in fiber and protein which make them good for the heart but can also aid those with diabetes as well as help maintain a healthy weight. This has to do with the nuts combination of good-for-you fats, protein and fiber which work together to keep you feeling full and satisfied in a way that snacks laden with simple carbs--like chips--simply cannot. And the more satisfied you feel, the less likely you’ll be to overeat.
Walnuts are also high in minerals like copper and manganese and vitamins like E and biotin--both of which really do contribute to healthy hair.
And, according to a study published in 2009 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming whole walnuts can help your body lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. There’s also evidence that walnuts can actually help the brain function better--particularly with respect to declining cognitive performance as a result of aging. Richer in antioxidants than any other nut, walnuts can help reduce inflammation that may be indicated in poor gut health and certain types of cancers as well.
In 2004, the Food & Drug Administration felt the science was clear enough to state that “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” This was the first time the agency actually put forth a health claim for a whole food.
Eat them out of your hand or in recipes
Luckily there are many ways to incorporate this superfood into your diet. The ancient cultures have a vast canon of interesting and delicious recipes using walnuts. Walnuts’ creamy texture makes them delightful to simply eat out of hand: 28 grams or about 1 ounce or ¼ cup a day is the recommended serving, a moderate enough amount that they need not be fattening.
Enjoy walnuts in salads, on top of yogurt or oatmeal or as part of a low sugar, healthy trail mix or on top of stir fries. If whole nuts aren’t your thing, walnut oil packs as much nutritive power as the nut itself and you can use in vinaigrettes or low-heat preparations.
However you decide to eat them, walnuts--revered by history, backed by scientific research--pack potent nutritional value into in a tiny package.