What acts like a nut but isn't really a nut? A peanut, of course!
Sometimes Mother Nature jokes with us – and sometimes we humans perpetuate that joke, too. Enter the peanut. It is rather funny that the only "nut" that really isn't a nut, but actually a legume in the same family as peas and beans including black, kidney, and garbanzos, also carries "nut" as part of its name. This of course is the mighty peanut – and this may sound a bit nutty, but even though it's not technically a nut, when it comes to nutrition, the peanut actually has a lot in common with tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios.
In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration approved the very first qualified health claim for foods and it was about nuts – including peanuts. The claim states "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as [named nut], as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease." Since that time, there has been a general acceptance that peanuts act like a nut so can be referred to as a nut when it comes to health. And there's nothing better though than being part of the group, but also being unique in ways that allow you to stand out. Peanuts do both.
Peanuts, Nutrition and Health
Ringing in at 180 calories in 2 Tbsp peanut butter or one ounce of peanuts – equal to a small handful or about 28 peanuts (or 14 shells with 2 peanuts each) – you might be leery of this also higher (about 50%) fat food. But hold on: not only can peanuts fit into a healthy, calorie-controlled diet, but the type of fat (3/4 of which is heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats) as well as the protein and other nutrients in this special 'nut / bean' may actually help keep your hunger and cravings calmed, your satisfaction high, your weight and blood sugar balanced, and your heart in healthy shape.
Peanuts are among the highest vegetable sources of protein with about a quarter of their calories – 7 grams in one ounce – coming from healthy plant-based protein. This is good news not only for vegetarians, but for all of us as we try to increase our overall health by steering more toward a plant-based diet that also supports our energy and weight while increasing well-being and reducing disease risk as we age. Peanuts are also high in arginine, an amino acid part of the protein that helps in the production of nitric oxide in the body, which relaxes blood vessels which can assist in reducing blood pressure and maintaining healthy elasticity of the vessels for good circulation to and from the heart.
A good source of fiber that research has shown can help with hunger, digestion, cholesterol regulation and reducing heart disease risk, peanuts also contain several B-vitamins vital to our production of energy and metabolizing our foods as well as vitamin E. Among the popular nuts, only peanuts and almonds are excellent sources of vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin that is not easy to get through the diet. A one ounce serving of peanuts contains 20% of the daily recommendation. Peanuts also contain important minerals including over 20% of your daily needs for copper and manganese, 10% or more of your daily magnesium, zinc, iron, as well as about 5% of an important antioxidant and mineral, selenium.
In fact, in one study researchers looked at the diets of more than 14,000 adults and children and found that those who consumed peanuts had a higher quality diet in a number of areas. Of particular note in the diets of peanut eaters were overall higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, the B vitamin folate, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and fiber along with lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol and no higher body mass index (a reflection of healthy or over weight) than non-peanut eaters.
Recent and emerging research is also pointing at powerful antioxidants and other active plant compounds like phytosterols, phenolic acids, and flavonoids, among others. One antioxidant that is both familiar but that many find surprising is one that most are more familiar with in red wine. A powerful antioxidant, resveratrol, which is found in red grapes and wine and attributed to their heart-healthy character, is also found in high levels in peanuts, particularly the skin. Researchers have found that boiled peanuts in particular, more common to the cuisine of the American South, have especially high levels of resveratrol, as do those that have their skins on. In addition, peanuts contain plant sterols, another type of compound that helps to block the absorption of cholesterol.
Well-known research including the Iowa Women's Study, Physician's Health Study, Nurses' Health Study, Adventist Health Study and others have shown regular nut eaters enjoy as much as a 35% or more decrease in heart disease risk compared with people who rarely or never eat nuts. Add this to several studies suggesting that regularly consuming peanuts may reduce the risk of diabetes, help lower cholesterol, decrease inflammation, protect and preserve brain health and lower likelihood of weight gain with age.
Enjoying Your Peanuts
Ultimately, the best diet is one that tastes good and happens to be good for you too. So in order to get your "handful" – one ounce of peanuts or two tablespoons of peanut butter – four or more times a week, here are some delicious tips. Remember that moderation is key with nuts and any food, so aim for about 1 to 1-1/2 ounces daily for good health and calorie control, too.
- In your morning oatmeal.
- On a salad – whole or chopped.
- In a trail mix with dried fruit like raisins, dried cranberries, dried blueberries or dried cherries.
- In rice pilafs and whole grains.
- In a veggie stir-fry at dinner.
- Crushed and added to "breading" for fish or chicken.
- Chopped and added to ice cream or frozen yogurt.
- On their own – a small handful of shelled peanuts or a large handful if they're still in the shell!
Spread or add peanut butter:
- Onto whole grain toast in the morning.
- To fruit smoothies.
- Onto whole grain crackers.
- As a side for dipping apple slices or with a banana.
- Into celery stalks for a crunchy, satisfying snack.
- Into a PB&J – whole grain bread, natural peanut butter and all-fruit preserves.
- Or speaking of PB&Js, try a Grown-Up Peanut Butter Sandwich (Recipe below) from The SuperFoodsRx Diet and swap out the jam or jelly for sliced fresh fruit.
* A word about peanut allergies... Food allergies are a serious, sometimes life-threatening immune response by the body to a foreign protein or compound. While we seem to hear a lot about the growing number of food allergies, and in particular at times about peanut allergies, there is a bit of a misperception about how high it is. According to the major allergy organizations that review the science and monitor reactions, between 0.6 and 1.1% of people have a mild to severe peanut allergy (equaling by comparison about a quarter of the number of adults with seafood allergies). Still, this does not minimize its severity, so if you, your child, or someone you know has or you suspect has a potential allergy, seek immediate advice from your primary health care provider or allergist.
By Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD
Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian and freelance writer in San Diego. She also heads the nutrition program at the renowned Golden Door and is Co-owner of Bazilian's Health Clinic with her husband and business partner, Dr. Jason Bazilian. Dr. Wendy is author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale).
Grown-Up Peanut Butter Sandwiches
Reprinted with permission from The SuperFoodsRx Diet: Lose Weight with the Power of SuperNutrients by Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, Pratt and Matthews (Rodale).
You've probably eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches most of your life. Now that you're an adult, put that jelly aside for healthier, more substantial peanut butter pairings. Try one of the following on your next sandwich and see how good it tastes not to be a kid anymore.
Serving Size: 1 sandwich
Prep Time: 3 minutes
2 slices whole wheat bread
1 1/2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
Select one of the following pairing options:
- 1/4 cup sliced seedless purple grapes
- 1/4 cup sliced strawberries
- 1/4 cup sliced and pitted fresh cherries
- 1/4 cup sliced and peeled strawberry guava
- 1/4 cup sliced, seeded and peeled kiwi fruit
- 1/4 cup sliced, seeded and peeled papaya
- 2 tablespoons grated apples
- 2 tablespoons grated carrots