Work munchies: they strike between breakfast and lunch, or an hour before you punch out. You could hold out for your next meal, but it’s not pretty when you get hangry.
So what should you reach for as you try to keep that New Year’s resolution? Fruits and vegetables are no-brainers. But for lots of reasons, walnuts are an optimal work snack, says Dr. Lenore Arab, a professor of medicine and disease prevention at UCLA.
Most nuts contain healthy antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, which improve cholesterol scores and also help lower rates of oxidative stress and vascular disease. But of all nuts, walnuts pack the greatest polyphenolic punch, according to a 2011 study appearing in the Royal Society of Chemistry.
MORE: Simply Eating Walnuts May Improve Your Overall Health
Walnuts beat out some other nuts when it comes to their stores of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), essential fats that both improve your metabolism and help you feel full. There’s evidence PUFAs help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. And the American Heart Association has linked the kinds of PUFAs found in walnuts to lower rates of heart disease and stroke, as well as better cellular health.
On top of all this, Arab points out that walnuts contain very little salt and are a super-convenient snack—no plates or utensils needed. They’re even easy on your teeth. (“My dentist says almonds are too hard,” she says.)
But setting all that aside, the most compelling reason to munch on walnuts might be their potential to support your brain.
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For a research paper published earlier this year, Arab and her colleagues examined the diet and lifestyle habits of thousands of adults. In terms of memory, concentration, and “information processing speed,” the people who ate walnuts significantly outperformed their nut-averse counterparts. These results held even after the study team adjusted their results to control for age, exercise, ethnicity and other lifestyle factors that could otherwise explain the apparent brain benefits.
The best part: just half an ounce of walnuts a day, roughly six or seven whole walnuts, is all you need to enjoy the benefits indicated by her study. (Full disclosure: The study was funded by the California Walnut Council. But Arab and her colleagues don’t receive money from walnut producers, and theirs is just the most recent of dozens of studies linking walnuts to brain and body benefits.)
When it comes to a walnut’s brain-supporting powers, “it seems to be a combination of nutrients that promote cognitive health, rather than just one component,” Arab says. She lists various vitamins and nutrients, the antioxidants mentioned above, and a type of plant-based omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid.
MORE: Eating Nuts Could Save You From Early Death
In a nutshell, walnuts are like a natural health supplement, chock full of salubrious compounds. “Eating a handful of walnuts daily as a snack or as part of a meal can help improve your cognitive health,” she says. “It isn’t every day that research results in such simple advice.”
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