Many people think that eating nuts is good for your brain. This is true, but not all nuts are created equally. There is great variation in the health benefits to be found in different types of nuts, especially from a brain health perspective.

  • Walnuts are the top nut for brain health. They have a significantly high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid. Among other things, DHA has been shown to protect brain health in newborns, improve cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. One study even shows that mothers who get enough DHA have smarter kids. Just a quarter cup of walnuts provides nearly 100% of the recommended daily intake of DHA.
  • Almonds and Hazelnuts are two of the most concentrated sources of vitamin E available, and vitamin E intake is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. In one study, participants who received vitamin E improved statistically and clinically in some memory and verbal measures, while participants who received a placebo did not. 1/4 cup of almonds or hazelnuts packs in nearly 50% of the RDA for vitamin E.
  • Peanuts have not been extensively studied as a brain healthy food, but there is good reason to believe that they offer brain benefits. Peanuts are high in niacin (1/2 cup of peanuts offers about 50% of the RDA for niacin.) Studies have correlated niacin deficiencies with a higher incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. There has also been preliminary research that suggests that eating peanuts may help stave off Parkinson’s.

Other nuts like pecans, chestnuts, and cashews are often mentioned as having brain health benefits. However, there are little or no published scientific studies to back up those claims, so we’ll have to wait on further research to be sure.

Of course, nuts are high in calories. Many worry that the proven health benefits of eating nuts will be outweighed by the increase in caloric intake and potential weight gain. Interestingly, studies have shown that people who regularly eat nuts actually weigh less than their nut-free counterparts. This is a correlation, not a cause and effect, so I’m not suggesting that adding nuts to your diet will help you lose weight. However, I have found that when I’m hungry between meals, grabbing 6-10 roasted almonds helps stave off hunger better than most other snacks I’ve tried, and gives me those brain benefits at the same time.

UPDATE: After posting this article, new research came out showing that people with walnuts and walnut oil in their diets have lower resting blood pressure as well as lower blood pressure responses to stress in the laboratory. Read the article here.

REFERENCES

Here are links to the PubMed abstracts of studies referenced in this article:

  1. Maternal docosahexaenoic acid-enriched diet prevents neonatal brain injury.
  2. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: a review of the evidence.
  3. Serum phospholipid docosahexaenonic acid is associated with cognitive functioning during middle adulthood.
  4. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age.
  5. Essential fatty acids and the brain.
  6. Grape juice, berries, and walnuts affect brain aging and behavior.
  7. Vitamin E use is associated with improved survival in an Alzheimer’s disease cohort.
  8. A vitamin/nutriceutical formulation improves memory and cognitive performance in community- dwelling adults without dementia.
  9. Better cognitive performance in elderly taking antioxidantvitamins E and C supplements in combination with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: the Cache County Study.
  10. Dietary niacin and the risk of incident Alzheimer’s disease and of cognitive decline.
  11. Follow-up study of early-life protective and risk factors in Parkinson’s disease.
  12. Nut Consumption and Weight Gain in a Mediterranean Cohort: The SUN Study.