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Peanut Butter: A Love Story

BY NANCY CLARK
PHOTO BY KEVIN WOBLICK

Peanut butter is, without a doubt, one of the most popular sports foods around. Ask rowers what they eat before a regatta, and many will say, Bagel with peanut butter.” Ask cyclists what they eat during a long ride, and the answer is inevitably peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Assuming you are not allergic to peanut butter (PB), you might love it, but you also might have a love-hate relationship with this popular food. You love it so much you can easily end up eating a lot of it. You hate it because you fear it will contribute to fat gain and health problems. Hence, the goal of this article: to erase the hate so you can love eating PB guilt-free, without negative consequences. 

Note: Peanuts grow underground and belong to the legume family, along with beans and peas. They share a nutrition profile similar to that of tree nuts, so we can lump them into the same conversation. Hence, the information in this article relates not just to peanut butter but all nut butters.

Is peanut butter fattening?
PB is not inherently fattening. If anything, people who eat peanuts, nuts, and nut butters tend to be slimmer than nut avoiders. This fact is based on data compiled from about 576,000 people who were followed for, on average, about 18 years. Higher nut and PB intake were associated with lower body weight, a smaller waist, and weight loss. PB eaters did not have a higher BMI or body-fat percentage. If anything, eating PB, nuts, and nut butters seemed to protect against weight gain. 

How can such a high-fat food be slimming? 

The warning we once heard to limit foods high in fat and calories has proven to be unwarranted. The fat in PB is satiating. A PB sandwich keeps you feeling fed for longer than, say, a turkey sandwich. Having fat in each meal also makes the meal taste better. Fat carries flavor. A spoonful of yummy PB pleases the taste buds, so you’ll be less likely to go poking around the kitchen looking for something else to eat, like ice cream. This can spare you from excess calories…

Should I pour off the oil that rises to the top of the all-natural PB jar? 

Pouring off the oil can save you calories, but if you replace those calories with a cookie, you are going down the wrong path. Of the 14 grams of fat in a tablespoon of peanut oil, 10.5 are from “good” health-enhancing fats. Peanut oil is a source of Vitamin E, an antioxidant that knocks down inflammation. People who eat PB, nuts, and other health-promoting oils five or more times a week have a reduced risk of heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. Why suffer through dry, less tasty, less health-protective PB when PB is not “fattening”?  Storing the jar upside down can erase the oil-on-top issue.

Is PB better for pre-exercise fuel or post-exercise recovery? 

PB, being primarily protein and fat, is a slow-to-digest fuel as compared to grains, fruits, and vegetables (carbohydrates). Protein and fat take far longer to digest, so they are a poor choice for quick energy before you exercise. That said, if you’ll be doing a workout that lasts from 60 to 90 minutes, eating PB before you exercise will offer sustained energy. It also can help buffer an influx of sugary gels and sports drinks. 

     After rowing, the fat and protein in peanut butter will refuel your muscles poorly. The best food for recovery offers three times more carbs than protein. That is, a spoonful of PB straight from the jar will fill your tummy but it will not rapidly refuel your muscles. A better choice is a PB & banana sandwich or pasta with a spicy Thai peanut sauce.

What’s the preferred type of peanut butter: organic? unsalted?

• Most long-term health studies have followed typical Americans who eat PB that is processed (hydrogenated) to keep the oil from separating out. Hydrogenation can create a bad trans fat, though the amount is small—less than half a gram per serving. (Negligible amounts show up as zero grams trans fat on the Nutrition Facts label.) The health benefits of any type of PB seem to outweigh any potential negatives, but in general, less processed foods (of any type) are preferable to highly processed versions.

• Organic PB is nutritionally similar to conventional PB but has a higher price tag, jumping from about 20 cents to about 37 cents per serving (two tablespoons). Pesticides in PB are negligible. “They are sprayed on the ground before planting and have a very short half-life. Most have disintegrated by the time the peanut plant sprouts,” reports a Teddie PB spokesperson.

• The amount of sodium (the part of salt attributed to high blood pressure) in Jif is 135 milligrams per serving, similar to the amount in a slice of bread. This is not very much sodium, given that the recommended intake is 2,400 mg. a day. (The average American consumes 3,400 mg./day.) As a fit, healthy, lean rower who likely has low blood pressure, do you need to limit your salt intake, given you lose salt in sweat? High blood pressure tends to be rooted heavily in genes, lack of fitness, and being overweight. 

Is almond butter better than peanut butter? 

Almond butter is far less sustainable than PB and is far more expensive, but it is equally nourishing. The subtle nutritional differences are insignificant in the context of your entire day’s food intake. In terms of planetary health, almonds have a much higher water footprint compared to peanuts (80.4 gallons of water per ounce of almonds versus 4.7 gallons for peanuts).

What about PB with flax?

Some peanut butters contain flax. Flax is among the richest sources of ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fat that is deemed anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy. A tablespoon of flax seeds offers about 2,350 mg. of ALA; a serving of peanut butter with flax might offer only 300 mg. of ALA. Given that the recommended intake of ALA is about 2,000 mg./day, it seems like the addition of flax to peanut butter would have insignificant health benefits—though that depends on how much PB with flax you eat in a day.

How can I keep myself from eating too much peanut butter?

1) Prevent yourself from getting too hungry. Curbing your appetite can keep you from overeating too much of any yummy food. 

2) Eat PB as often as you want. Trying to limit it contributes to binges of peanut butter-by-the-spoonful. Overeating PB typically happens before you put yourself back in diet jail or when you flunk out of diet jail. If you give yourself permission to enjoy PB every day, if not every meal, it will soon lose its power. Give it a try?

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark M.S., R.D. counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat to win. For more information about her books and online workshop, visit NancyClarkRD.com.

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