Nuts, with their ability to reduce inflammation associated with heart disease and diabetes, are widely considered among the healthier of snacks.
But they could also boost the cognitive development and psychological maturation of adolescents, according to new research out of Spain.
Researchers recruited 700 students ages 11 through 16—from a variety of high schools in Barcelona—and divided them into two groups: those who weren’t offered walnuts, and those who were offered 30 grams of walnuts to consume daily for six months.
They found that adolescents who ate walnuts for at least 100 days during that period—not necessarily in a row, but cumulatively—experienced better focus, and that those who had ADHD saw significantly improved behavior.
The study’s teens also saw a boost in intelligence, according to researchers—a trait that has less to do with traditional learning and more to do with the inherent ability to complete complex tasks, like figuring out patterns and puzzles.
The results can likely be attributed to the walnuts’ alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—a type of omega-3 fatty acid that plays a substantial role in brain development, especially during adolescence—researchers say. During that time, hormones stimulate synaptic growth in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for complex emotional and cognitive functions, Jordi Julvez—the study’s principal investigator and a neuroscience researcher at the Clinical and Epidemiological Neuroscience Group in Spain—said in a news release about the study.
“Neurons that are well nourished with this type of fatty acid will be able to grow and form new, stronger synapses,” he adds.
While adolescence is certainly a complex time for both young adults and parents alike, something as simple as offering your child a “handful of walnuts a day, or at least three times a week” could result in “many substantial improvements in cognitive abilities,” Ariadna Pinar—a biologist at the Institut d’Investigació Sanitària Pere Virgili in Spain, who worked on the study—said in a news release.
“It would help them face the challenges of adolescence and entering adulthood,” she says.
To see benefits will require “strong commitment, and few people will comply,” the authors note. Still, “compliance may change once the general public learns about the positive finding in those who comply.”
The researchers plan to soon study the consumption of walnuts in pregnant women and its impact on the same traits in infants.