Many ways to get your nuts

Eating walnuts may improve performance on cognitive function tests, including those for memory, concentration and information processing speed according to new research from the David Geffen School of Medicine at The University of California, Los Angeles.

It’s truly nuts that less than 40 percent of American adults regularly eat a certain plant that is tasty, filling and healthy, particularly for the heart.

A week before Christmas, a study by Qunnipiac University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was released that found that only 38 percent of adults ate nuts each day. And, if they do, it was usually in the form of peanut butter or other nut butters.

For the purpose of the study, the CDC definition of nuts included everything from peanuts, peanut butter and cashews to pumpkin seeds and sesame paste, among many others.

The Food and Drug Administration says the ideal amount of daily consumption of nuts is an ounce and a half, basically a simple handful, which is equivalent to about 240 calories. The study, conducted in 2009 and 2010, found that only 14 percent of men and 12 percent of women reach that level of daily consumption.

Dr. Ann Kulze, a local physician and wellness advocate, has long preached about the virtues of eating nuts on a daily basis and says she thinks the primary reason for people not eating nuts is awareness.

“Nuts make their way prominently into every diet-based talk and lecture I give and I often take an informal, show of hands, survey (at the talks) as to how many people consume nuts daily. I continue to be shocked by the lack of hands,” says Kulze.

When she asks why, Kulze says most indicate they didn’t know. But she also thinks the lingering effect of “low-fat dogma,” that nuts are fattening and therefore unhealthy, from the 1980s and 1990s remains entrenched in people’s minds.

“Of course, we now know that the ‘low-fat’ advice was based on faulty and incomplete science, which is a shame. Additionally, nuts are a standout food for weight control, which makes this scenario particularly frustrating for us,” says Kulze.

The final reason Kulze thinks people haven’t made nuts a daily habit is that they think “something that tastes so good cannot be great for me.”

My thought is that nuts, like a lot of healthy food, can be perceived as expensive. I know that I often find myself grimacing when I pick up a pound bag of walnuts or almonds for $8-$10, but that pound often lasts me a month or so.

Kulze says she could see where that cost could be an issue for some, but she has “never” heard, in literally hundreds of talks, that reason for people not regularly eating them.

Responding to a Facebook post on the subject, Dr. Emily Eades Johnson thinks lingering concerns about growing nut allergies may be clouding the food category’s glory.

“Quite honestly, I think many people don’t eat nuts because it is trendy to not eat them. (It seems like) one in five people claims to have a nut allergy. I know that real diagnosed nut allergies are very serious and life-threatening. However, the amount of people that now claim to have a nut allergy is absurd, especially since many of them that claim it have no medical support, diagnosis, or background for it,” says Johnson, who is a research analyst at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Last week, a study in Australia may have cracked open a possible cure to the dreaded peanut allergy: a particular strain of probiotics called lactobacillus rhamnosus.

Researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne gave 60 children who are allergic to peanuts either a probiotic along with a small dose of peanut protein or a placebo.

More than 80 percent of children, or 23 out of 28, who received the protein and probiotic were able to tolerate peanuts without any allergic symptoms at the end of the trial, according to lead researcher Mimi Tang.

“This is 20 times higher than the natural rate of resolution for peanut allergy,” Tang says in a release, adding that the treatment was given under close medical supervision and that some children still had allergic reactions.

“This is a promising therapy in the context of the increase in peanut allergy incidence,” says Tang.

Of course, more study is needed, but Dr. Jeffrey Dietrich of Charleston Allergy & Asthma called the study “very exciting” news because of the potential for a cure.

His optimism is cautious, noting that the study needs to see if the children continue to tolerate peanuts after the therapy and that it needs to be done with larger numbers of patients.

“Overall, this is an exciting time in food allergy research, and, hopefully in the near future we will be able to offer food allergy patients novel therapies other than the traditional treatment of strict avoidance of a patient’s food allergens,” says Dietrich.

Anyone who has ever looked at a whole walnut and a photograph of a human brain can see a resemblance in shape.

While that shape may be coincidence, a new University of California, Los Angeles, study suggests that eating walnuts, less than a handful, about 13 grams, per day, may improve memory and cognitive function.

The cross-sectional study is the first large representative analysis of walnut intake and cognitive function, and the only study to include all available cognitive data across multiple National Health and Nutrition Examination surveys.

The surveys draw from a large sampling of the U.S. population, typically ages 1 to 90 years old.

In the UCLA study, participants included adults ages 20-59 as well as 60 and over. Researchers found that study participants with higher walnut consumption performed significantly better on a series of six cognitive tests.

“It is exciting to see the strength of the evidence from this analysis across the U.S. population supporting the previous results of animal studies ... that have shown the neuroprotective benefit from eating walnuts,” says lead researcher Dr. Lenorre Arab, at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, in a release.

The study adds to a growing body of research surrounding walnuts’ positive effect on reducing cognitive impairment and overall brain health, which includes the possible beneficial effects of slowing or preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in mouse models.

Arab says among possible active ingredients in walnuts that may be contributing factors in protecting cognitive functions are antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, alpha-linolenic acid and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.

“It isn’t every day that research results in such simple advice: Eating a handful of walnuts daily as a snack, or as part of a meal, can help improve your cognitive health,” says Dr. Arab.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.