You—my friends, followers and clients—have questions about food, and today I’ll endeavor to answer one that I hear quite frequently. Erin asks: Peanut butter...is it worth it for the protein, or is it adding too many calories to my diet? Regular or "natural?"
I’ve got one of my famous three-part answers for this one, but the short answer is, excluding those who have allergies or other intolerances to peanuts, yes, if you like natural peanut butter, there is definitely a place for it in a balanced and healthful diet.
Part 1: Go natural or go home
The peanut butter that I grew up eating was super creamy, fluffy stuff. I could hold an open jar of peanut butter upside down over my head without fear that it would drop out in globs and mess up my side ponytail. What gave the peanut butter that amazing texture? Food manufacturers figured out that adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable fats—through a really nasty chemical process—turns those fats into solids at room temperature. Partially hydrogenated fat, also known as trans fat, creates a firmer texture in products where a natural texture may be oily or prone to separate, like natural peanut butter. It also keeps products shelf stable for longer periods of time. After decades of using trans fats in products, from peanut butter to margarine to baked goods, the scientific community realized these fats are a huge threat to heart health. Unbelievably, you’ll still find them in many brands regular peanut butter.*
Regular peanut butter also includes mono- and diglycerides, which are added to keep the oil from rising to the top of the jar, which happens naturally and is apparently abhorrent to Americans. Though these fats can occur naturally, the stuff added to your peanut butter is likely created in a lab.
If you think you’re doing yourself or your family any favors by choosing reduced fat peanut butter, think again! Not only does the reduced fat variety contain trans fats, it also contains extra sugar and other unnatural fillers to improve the taste and texture of a product that is even further removed from real food.
There should be only one or possibly two ingredients in your peanut butter:
That is all. Sure, the texture of natural peanut butter may take a little getting used to—I would definitely not hold an open jar over my head! But it’s just as delectable as the stuff I remember as a kid, maybe even more so.
Part 2: Consider the whole package
I’m a big fan of Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, who says, “It’s the whole package of nutrients, not just one or two, that determines how good a particular food is for health.” Not only is peanut butter a pretty darn good source of protein with 8 grams of naturally occurring protein in a two-tablespoon serving, it’s also a good source of heart-protecting fats. Additionally, it contains vitamin E—a powerful antioxidant—and magnesium. One serving also has a nice dose of potassium, about half the amount found in a medium-sized banana. Potassium and sodium work together to keep the fluid levels in your body steady and to prevent muscles from cramping, making good old peanut butter and banana a prime snack for runners.
So to answer Erin, all in all, peanut butter offers some great health benefits beyond protein. **
Part 3: However…
Whenever I’m considering whether a food should be included in my diet or in that of a client, I look at the full context of the diet and activity level. If someone enjoys a handful of walnuts and a banana daily on their oatmeal, adds pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds to salads, and enjoys a couple handfuls of almonds a day, there may not be any nutritional reason to include peanut butter. However, if this person is an endurance athlete running 60 miles per week, adding in natural peanut butter, which is calorically dense, makes great sense.
There’s also the pleasure factor: If you love peanut butter, you can most definitely find ways to include it as part of a balanced diet made up of lots of vegetables and fruit, whole grains and natural sources of protein. Portioning is important, too. It's easy to eat a double or even triple-sized serving. A full serving size is about the size of a golf ball--keep that in mind as your spreading, dipping or eating peanut butter off the spoon.
* A note on trans fats and your diet: You may have noticed that while the nutrition label may shows that your peanut butter has 0 grams of trans fat, partially hydrogenated oil is still listed in the ingredients. There’s a loophole here: A product with less than .5 grams of trans fat may call itself trans fat free. However, the maximum daily recommendation for this nasty stuff is just 2.5 grams per day, so you could easily exceed that limit by eating a combo of “trans fat free!” peanut butter on “trans fat free!” bread with some “trans fat free!” potato chips and a couple “trans fat free!” cookies. Always read the ingredient list to avoid these heart-damaging fats
** For my Paleo friends who eschew all grains and legumes, there is concern that there’s a toxin present in peanuts that causes an auto-immune response. There’s just not enough evidence supporting this hypothesis for me to get behind it. Many of our Paleo friends also talk about peanuts containing phytic acid, may bind to minerals before our bodies can absorb them. This may be a concern for infants with low iron, but for the rest of us, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that we need to avoid phytic acid. In fact, there’s lots of evidence that phytic acid supports cardiovascular health and even reduces glycemic response after eating. More on phytic acid available from Precision Nutrition