Food cravings can be a total B, especially if you’re trying your best to avoid temptation. But while distracting yourself when cravings strike can help, new research has found that simply eating a few walnuts—yup, walnuts—can help you squelch the urge to eat something unhealthy.
That’s the takeaway from a new double-blind study published in the journal Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. For the study, researchers had 10 people with obesity live in a clinical research center for two five-day sessions. (Being in a controlled environment allowed scientists to know exactly what each person was eating rather than rely on the participants to report what they ate, which can be unreliable.) During one session, the participants were given smoothies each day that had 48 grams of walnuts, the serving size recommended by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) dietary guidelines, while others had a similar smoothie that was walnut-free but tasted the same. During the next session, participants who had a walnut smoothie during session one were given the walnut-free smoothie, and vice versa.
After five days, the study participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) while looking at photos of delicious foods like hamburgers and desserts, healthy foods like vegetables, and neutral pictures like flowers and rocks. When they were shown the pictures of yummy foods, people who had consumed the walnut smoothies had increased activity in a part of the brain that regulates impulses and appetite compared to those who had not had the walnut smoothies. The researchers concluded that eating walnuts impacted this part of the brain, which is called the insula. People also said they felt less hungry after eating the walnut smoothie compared to the non-walnut smoothie.
The study’s researchers say that the part of the insula that lit up is involved in mental control, meaning that people were able to pay more attention to food choices and pick healthier options over unhealthy (but tastier) foods. However, they say, they’re not totally sure whether eating more walnuts would lead to even more mental control or if the impact plateaus after a while.
Of course, walnuts are known to have a good impact on your health. The American Heart Association points out that they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy fat. But they’re also pretty high in fat, which is why the AHA recommends that you stick to a serving size, which is just 1.5 ounces a day—about the same amount that people had in the study.
So, if food cravings have been torpedoing your efforts to eat healthy, try to add a few walnuts to your daily diet and see where that gets you. It might help more than you think.