The unique foods of Greece and their health benefits:
Walnuts, “a gift sent to Greece from Persia by the kings.”
Since ancient times, the Greeks had realized how precious the gifts of Mother Nature were. The Mediterranean climate along with the geological formations of the country created a fertile ground where an abundance of wild herbs and plants could grow. About 1800 endemic species that grow on Greek soil have certified medicinal properties. Over the years, the Greeks have come to discover the properties of these special herbs and foods… this month we explore the popularity and diversity of walnuts in Greece!
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” –Hippocrates
Walnuts (Juglans Regia)
ORIGIN AND TRAITSThe history, cultural traits, traditions and an overall modus vivendi of a nation is passed on from generation to generation sculpting and preserving its identity. Yet, when taking under consideration the presence of walnuts in the Greek diet we come to realize that modern and ancient Greeks have also got something in common; a mutual preference in walnut-packed comfort foods.
From the walnut-honey dessert of the Spartan diet to the traditional Greek baklava, kataifi and walnut cake (karydopita) we enjoy today, this nut has had a dominant position in the history of Greek diet as well as our fondest memories; walnuts are a key ingredient in a popular Christmas dessert, melomakarona.
While a primary form of walnut trees was originally grown in the mountain ranges of Central Asia, it wasn’t until the 4th century BC when Alexander the Great introduced a hybrid alternative of walnut tree with larger fruit which was then found in Southern Europe. In Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum book, the hybridized walnut tree form is called “the Persian nut”.
A main characteristic of walnut trees is that they are of great photosynthetic ability, which means that lots of sun exposure and suitable temperatures (not exceeding 104 Fahrenheit degrees) can lead to high quality nut production. Given that the mountainous and semi-mountainous regions of the Greek land offer the appropriate climatic conditions and soil composition for walnut cultivation, the country finds itself among the top ranks of walnut cultivation globally.
Juglans Regia trees are deciduous and reach heights of 80 to 120 ft. with a diameter of 6ft. Their size and their ability to provide shadow is partly the reason behind their Greek name; karydia (which originates from karos) is the name given by Plutarch because whoever sleeps under a walnut tree soon falls into deep sleep as a result of a strong scent inhalation.
BENEFITS AND HEALING PROPERTIES
Since the 1st century AD, Pliny, the Roman scholar, had valued the worth of this precious to health nut, calling it “a gift sent to Greece from Persia by the kings.” Even its scientific name, Regia (=royal) indicates that since ancient times walnuts were considered top quality and superior to other nuts such as chestnuts, beechnuts and acorns. Today, research comes to prove that Juglans Regia nuts live up to their name and that apart from savory they are also packed with nutrients and health benefits.
Walnuts are champions when it comes to antioxidant action as they contain higher amounts of antioxidants than other foods. They are also a good source of omega-3 fats (alpha-linolenic acid) which enhance brain function (justifying their crinkly, brain-like appearance), improve blood circulation and protect against cardiovascular diseases by lowering triglyceride levels.
Rich in essential minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, they promote physical and mental development, reinforce reproductive health and are advised to be consumed during pregnancy.
A good source of copper and manganese, walnuts protect against osteoporosis and help maintain adequate levels of collagen and elastin. Rich in B complex vitamins, which are fundamental in red blood cells synthesis, walnuts prevent cell damage, protect against anemia and promote calcium absorption.
Moreover, daily walnut consumption can help in weight control and boost metabolism. Due to high rates of protein, a handful of nuts promotes saturation, aids in digestion and helps stabilize blood sugar levels.
Walnut oil is also used in dermocosmetics as it aids in skin hydration, anxiety relief and aromatherapy.
USE AND DOSAGE
Walnuts can be consumed whole or chopped, untreated, salted of sweetened. In order to benefit from their health benefits consumed untreated is advised. Kept in a cool, dark and dry place, walnuts can last in room temperature for a couple of months and be consumed in various ways.
You can eat them as they are, or create a healthy and saturating breakfast bowl of Greek yogurt, nuts and fruit. Alternatively, spend some time to prepare homemade granola using walnuts, seeds and dried fruit and enjoy all week long.
An on-the-go and hearty lunch idea is always some lettuce or kale topped with chopped walnuts and pomegranates; fiber and protein in a bowl! You can also make a pesto sauce using walnuts and pine nuts, refrigerate and enjoy anytime.
Moreover, walnuts make the perfect addition to biscuits, cakes and sweets; experiment with different kinds of nuts, dried fruit or even make a traditional Greek karydopita!
Remember that a handful a day (1, 5 ounce) is enough to offer nutritional benefits. Overconsumption is not advised as walnuts have a quite high caloric value (180 calories per 1 oz.).
RESEARCH AND INTERNATIONAL INTEREST
Juglans regia, “the royal gift” according to Pliny, are a popular Mediterranean diet staple due to their health benefits and nutritional value. Over the years, walnuts, a common object of research, have given fruitful results to the scientific community.
According to research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, walnut consumption was found to enhance memory and improve mental function. In fact it is stated that “A balanced diet including walnuts may reduce the risk of dementia in the elderly population. This may be attributed to a unique combination of anti-amyloid genic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of walnuts.” ¹
Moreover, the effects of walnut consumption on weight loss were analyzed in research published in the US National Library of Medicine. The conclusion was that “Including 30 grams walnuts/day in an individualized diet produced weight loss and positive changes in food choice.”
Concluding, a simple search can result in numerous scientific articles about the health benefits of walnuts. Since we are what we eat, consider adding this precious aliment in your diet and enjoy the health benefits it has to offer.