The Mediterranean Diet is publicized as one of the healthiest diets in the world. It has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, lower risk of cancer, lower rates of obesity, and more. What makes this diet so rich in health benefits is the plentiful use of whole and all-natural foods, including fruits, vegetables, and fish, as well as the incorporatation of the healty fats found in olives, oils, and nuts.
And speaking of nuts, one of the most important nuts in the Mediterranean diet is the walnut. Originating in central Asia in prehistoric times, the walnut became widely popular for its medicinal virtues. Detailed in Greek and Roman medical writings for thousands of years, walnuts were thought to benefit several ailments, from bad breath to constipation. And, due in part to it’s unique brain-like shape and the potential effects on the brain, the walnut was deemed a “food of the gods.”
Fast-forward a few millennia, and you will find that walnuts remain an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, and not just for people living in Italy or Greece. In the last decade, Americans also have embraced the use of walnuts, largely due to their strong association with a healthy diet. Recent research has associated the consumption of walnuts with a lower risk of heart disease. And, in 2004, walnuts became the only whole food to have a qualified health claim approved by the FDA:
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 artery disease.
Beyond heart disease, eating walnuts has also been shown to improve lipid levels in patients with diabetes and to be an excellent source of antioxidants.
Although walnuts may have exotic roots, over 30 varieties of walnuts are now produced in the US. California has become one of the largest producers of walnuts in the world. On a recent tour of California’s walnut country, I learned that California walnuts account for 99% of US walnuts and three-fourths of the world walnut trade, making them fresher and more accessible than ever before. And, just like the walnut’s popularity, the walnut industry itself continues to grow. The California Walnut Commission reports that in 2010, the California walnut crop is expected to produce 510,000 short tons of walnuts, which is 17% more than 2009 and more than double the crop from 2000.
Beyond the many health benefits walnuts, they are also quite versatile when it comes to cooking, making it very easy to incorporate into just about any meal. Walnuts can be found in dishes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything in between.
- Breakfast: Sprinkle walnuts over yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, waffles, French toast, or pancakes. Walnuts also can be incorporated into smoothies, quick breads, and other pastries.
- Lunch: Add walnuts to a salad for a crunchy topping or to a cold summer pasta dish.
- Dinner: Walnuts can add flavor and sophistication to just about any main course, from steak to chicken, and from pasta to hearty soups. And don’t forget about walnut pesto!
Obviously, we can’t all live in Greece, Spain, or even California for that matter, but that doesn’t mean living a Mediterranean lifestyle is beyond our reach. Even small changes, like eating whole foods or adding more walnuts to our diet, can help us experience this healthy lifestyle no matter where we live.