A handful of walnuts


Is a bag of walnuts a regular item in your shopping basket? If not, it should be! Nutritionally, walnuts are unique among nuts as they are an excellent source of the essential omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. One handful (approximately 30g) gives you approximately 3g, which is a significant amount, when you consider that in the US, the recommended daily intake is between 1.1-1.6g. There is no recommended daily amount for the UK, although it is classified as essential. Alpha linolenic acid is termed essential in the diet because it cannot be made in the body. A handful of walnuts will also give you nearly 5g protein and 2g of fibre.

Walnuts provide plenty of other vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are a good source of vitamins B1 and B6, folate, vitamin E, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, manganese and biotin and also provide pantothenic acid, potassium, iron and zinc.

As well as the essential vitamins and mineral mentioned above, walnuts contain a complex mixture of bioactive compounds. They’re exceptionally rich in antioxidants, which are concentrated in the brown skin. These include:

  • Ellagic acid, which may help to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • Catechin, a flavonoid antioxidant that has various health benefits, including promoting heart health.
  • Melatonin, a neurohormone that helps regulate your body clock.

Walnuts and heart health

There is a glut of research that has investigated how eating walnuts affects various aspects of heart health including cholesterol, blood pressure and inflammation.

Ultimately the research has shown that eating walnuts as part of a healthy diet may decrease your risk of heart disease. Walnuts help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and decrease blood pressure, two of the major risk factors for heart disease.

A study from the University of Barcelona showed that eating walnuts as part of a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 30% lower risk of suffering from a heart attack, stroke.

Walnuts and cancer

Animal and cell research has shown walnuts have potential to reduce the risk of various cancers including breast, prostate and colorectal. A review published in The Journal of Nutrition suggested walnuts have multiple nutrients that act together to help decrease the risk of developing cancer and provide more benefit than would be expected from the individual components.

One study of 10 women with breast cancer, found those who consumed 2 handfuls of walnuts per day for 2-3 weeks experienced beneficial genetic changes related to cancer development and growth, including apoptosis (cell death), inflammation, cell proliferation (cell multiplication), and metastasis (spread of cancer).

Walnuts and diabetes

Walnuts are low in carbohydrate and won’t spike your blood sugar, meaning they are a great snack if you’re feeling hungry between meals. If you are pre-diabetic or have type 2 diabetes, consider incorporating walnuts into your daily diet. One study that included 117 subjects with type-2 diabetes, showed that two handfuls of nuts daily as a replacement for the same number of calories from carbohydrate foods improved both blood sugar control and cholesterol.

Walnuts and gut health

Research on the gut microbiome suggests that walnuts may have prebiotic health benefits, which have a positive impact on gut health.

A study from the University of Illinois, found that walnut consumption was associated with positive changes to the gut microbiome. Adults who ate 1-2 handfuls of walnuts every day for 3 weeks resulted in an increase in ‘friendly’ gut bacteria and a decrease in secondary bile acids, which may play a role in colon cancer, inflammation, and gastrointestinal diseases.

Walnuts and weight

There are specific hormones and areas of the brain that tell the body if it’s hungry or full, which play a role in body weight. Research investigating appetite hormones and using novel brain imaging technology to explore neurological responses to food cues show promise for walnuts’ potential role. Researchers found that consuming walnuts may activate an area in the brain associated with controlling hunger and cravings.

The bottom line

A handful of walnuts everyday are worth the price tag and the calories. They will give you so much back in terms of health benefits. You can also use them in dishes to reduce or replace meat; coarsely blended walnuts mixed with chopped mushrooms make a good substitute for mince. 

Here are a few on my favourite walnut recipes.

Walnut mushroom chilli

Serves 4

100g walnuts

300g mushrooms

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp chilli flakes

400g can chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato puree

400g can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

400g can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves

Place the walnuts in a food processor and mix to give a coarse crumb. Repeat with the mushrooms and mix into the walnuts.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the walnut mixture and garlic for 5 minutes. Add the spices and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato puree and both beans and cook gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper and scatter over the coriander.

Cod and walnut pilaf

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil

2 peppers 1 red, 1 yellow, diced

1 onion chopped

2 cloves garlic crushed

175g wholegrain rice

600ml vegetable stock

250g cherry tomatoes

100g spinach

50g walnuts, chopped

Handful of basil, shredded

4 x 120g cod fillets

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the peppers and onion for 5 minutes, add the garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes.

Add the rice and stock, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Stir in the spinach, walnuts and basil and nestle in the cod, recover and cook for 5-7 minutes until the fish is cooked and the rice is tender.

Walnut curry

Serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil plus 1 tsp

1 tsp black onion seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp chilli powder

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tbsp ginger paste

400ml water

1 onion, chopped finely

4 large tomatoes, chopped

3 carrots, sliced

8 new potatoes, chopped into quarters

250g cauliflower florets

275g frozen peas

50g walnuts

100g spinach leaves

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the black onion and cumin seeds, turmeric, chilli powder, garlic and ginger and stir for 2-3 minutes, then add 200ml water. Add the onions and tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes stirring occasionally.

Add the carrots, potatoes and cauliflower stir and then cook for another 15 minutes, covered with a lid. Add the peas and remaining water and cook for a further 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a frying pan and then stir them into the curry. Add in the spinach and cook for a further 1-2 minutes until just wilted. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Serve with basmati rice.

Caribbean walnut stew

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil

Pinch of chilli flakes

1 onion, chopped

500g chicken thigh fillets, diced

1 red pepper, diced

227g can pineapple slices, cut into chunks

1 tbsp medium curry powder

400g coconut milk

400g can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

75g walnuts, roughly chopped

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onion, chilli flakes and chicken for 5 minutes, add the pepper and pineapple chunks, reserving the juice, and fry for a further 2-3 minutes.

Stir in the curry powder and cook for 1 minute before adding the coconut milk, pineapple juice and kidney beans, simmer for 10 minutes then stir in the walnuts. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Scatter on the coriander leaves.

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