Life Table Talk

Sunday 31 August 2014

Nuts are the perfect brain food for study time

Rozanne Stevens

Published 19/05/2014 | 02:30

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Almonds, walnuts and brazilian nuts in containers, close-up
Almonds, walnuts and brazilian nuts in containers, close-up
Rozanne Stevens

Every second article (including my column) advises you to eat more oily fish for the healthy essential fats.

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But what if you're a vegetarian, don't like fish or just need some variety? Walnuts to the rescue!

Walnuts contain significant amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, one of the three omega-3 fatty acids that we are advised to have in our diets. Because our bodies cannot produce this acid, we need to provide our body with it on a daily basis with the foods we eat.

And all it takes is seven walnuts a day to get your daily dose of these essential fatty acids. That should be easy for all of us to manage, no preparation required, just munching.

But why are these essential fats so important? I'm sure you've heard it before, but let me give you a quick recap. Firstly, omega-3s are essential brain food. Right from when you are a foetus in your mother's womb, your brain needs plenty of omega-3s to develop and maintain good health.

Research shows that walnuts can help develop over three dozen neurotransmitters in the brain. Patrick Holford writes extensively about the role of diet in brain and mental health. It's a link we no longer can ignore. The benefits of omega-3s is especially important for children, particularly with conditions on the autism spectrum and ADHD.

Omega-3s also help lower LDL cholesterol, which is the 'baddie', and increase HDL cholesterol, which is the 'good guy'.

The liver plays an important part in metabolising fats in the body. Studies showed that for every two walnut halves consumed, the liver will lower LDL cholesterol by one per cent.

And the great news, according to the Irish Heart Foundation, is that for every one per cent drop in LDL cholesterol there is a two per cent decrease in your risk of heart disease. But don't interpret this as an instruction to eat unlimited quantities of walnuts! Small handful is plenty.

Another cause of damage to the arteries is inflammation. Particularly a compound called endothelin which then encourages the build-up of the sticky plaque on the artery walls that narrows your arteries and reduces blood flow and can eventually lead to a heart attack.

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A study by the University of Padua proved that the common shop-bought English walnut can successfully suppress endothelin in test subjects. So walnuts can help you tackle heart disease from two directions.

Walnuts are also fantastic for hormone and reproductive health. The omega-3s help balance hormones and the high vitamin B6 content is very effective for relieving PMS symptoms. Why be miserable when you can do something to help?

Unless you have an existing allergy, or family history of nut allergies, 1/4 cup of nuts for pregnant women is excellent as a source of vital omega-3s. Particularly in the last trimester when the baby's brain is developing rapidly.

For years doctors pooh-poohed the link between diet and skin conditions.

But I think any sufferer who has experimented with their diet would beg to differ! The good news is that the omega-3s, zinc and vitamin E found in walnuts can help relieve a wide range of skin conditions. Zinc is very important for teenage and adult acne.

And the polyphenols in walnuts can help ease eczema, especially in children. Vitamin E is excellent for healing scars such as acne scars, and will also keep your skin looking youthful and supple.

Walnuts are the fruit of an ancient tree, dating back to 7,000BC. They feature prominently in Greek mythology and the tree was revered as a symbol of immortality. And as a fruit, walnuts are seasonal and best eaten straight from the shell. But most people don't want to go to this trouble, so buy them shelled.

Unfortunately, the delicate oils in walnuts can go rancid very quickly, so it is best to buy them from a good supplier with a high turnover. I always freeze my seeds and nuts to preserve their delicate oils. They don't clump together and you simply shake out what you need, no need for defrosting. It really works, so do try it!

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Cooking With Walnuts:

* Make basil or rocket pesto with walnuts instead of pine nuts. Lightly dry roast them in a pan first to bring out the flavour.

* Add to a traditional brown soda bread recipe with some rosemary and cranberries for a festive feel.

* Roast diced butternut squash with olive oil, maple syrup, salt and pepper. Scatter over some walnuts for the last few minutes of roasting. Cool slightly and toss together with rocket leaves and crumbled blue cheese for a special salad.

* Roast diced raw beetroot with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rosemary, salt and pepper. Scatter over some walnuts for the last few minutes of roasting. Cool slightly and toss together with crumbled goat cheese and watercress leaves for a healthy salad.

* Core an apple and make a stuffing of: chopped walnuts, a little brown sugar or honey, a pinch of cinnamon and a small knob of butter. Bake on a tray until the apples are soft and wrinkly.

* Make a savoury snack by lightly toasting walnuts with a sprinkle of chipotle chilli powder or smoked paprika, a drizzle of maple syrup and a little orange juice, salt and pepper.

* For a sweet snack, melt butter, honey and a dash of vanilla in a pan and caramelise the walnuts in this sticky syrup.

* For a dairy-free dessert sauce, blend walnuts with water, maple syrup and a little vanilla. Lovely served with fruit or a baked dessert.

* Use walnut oil in salad dressings by mixing two parts walnut oil to one part lemon juice and seasoning with a little honey, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper.

* Make your own walnut butter by pouring a little walnut oil into your food processor before adding a generous amount of walnuts. Purée until it is smooth, scraping down the sides regularly. This will take quite a while, so be patient. I like adding a little Saigon cinnamon to my walnut butter.

I keep a large glass jar of mixed nuts and dried fruit in a prominent place in the kitchen. We each get a small tub to take to work to munch on.

And at home, we dip into it as we walk past rather that raiding the biscuit tin. Well, most of the time anyway. So that's a good snack for all the students studying frantically, best of luck guys!

Recipes taken from Relish and Delish cookbooks by Rozanne Stevens. For cookbooks and healthy cooking courses, log on to www.rozannestevens.com

Irish suppliers: www.irishhealthstores.com and www.wholefoods.ie

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