Peanuts good or harm to health?

Contrary to popular belief, rather than harm your health, the little legume may be just the thing for active men and women.

Pity the poor beleaguered peanut. Long castigated for its fat content, recently the humble legume has faced even more flak on the health front. First school districts in Massachusetts instituted peanut-free areas in school cafeterias for students with allergies, and requested that parents not include peanut-butter sandwiches in their children’s lunch bags. Then the Department of Transportation called on airlines to create peanut-free zones for passengers with allergies. Most recently it was reported that breast-feeding moms who eat peanut butter may be setting up their children for future peanut allergies.

But the peanut isn’t all bad news. A growing body of research shows that nuts (peanuts are included in this class even though they are technically a legume) may be useful in improving cardiovascular health, preventing cancer, and providing essential nutrients.

The Skinny on Fat

Peanuts may contain a lot of fat–but it’s the right kind. Roughly 50 percent of the fat in peanuts is monounsaturated. Unsaturated fats can help lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) levels in the blood without affecting the HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). Research shows that people who eat a greater percentage of monounsaturated fats lower their risk of heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, and even depression.

But what about the other not-so-healthy fats in peanuts? According to Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., who offers nutrition consultations to active people out of her sports medicine office in Brookline, Massachusetts, eating large amounts of saturated fat may negate the benefits of a diet high in monounsaturates. However, Clark says that because of their nutritional content, peanuts are a healthy choice. “Peanuts have a high percentage of monounsaturated fats [Compared to other types of fats], and eating whole peanuts keeps that percentage high.”

A Hale Heart

Monounsaturated fat isn’t the only heart-healthy benefit peanuts provide. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that peanuts pack a double punch against heart disease with resveratrol. Exactly how resveratrol improves health isn’t known, but it has been associated with reduced cardiovascular disease.

The link between nuts and a healthier heart may not be completely understood, but there’s no doubt that the link exists. A 1980 to 1990 study conducted by Frank B. Hu, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, showed that women who ate at least five ounces of nuts per week were only 65 percent as likely to suffer from coronary heart disease as women who avoided nuts.

Did we say peanuts are a double punch against heart disease? Make that a triple punch. One ounce of roasted peanuts provides 10 percent of the daily recommended amount of folic acid, a B vitamin recommended to lower the risk of heart disease.

Pump Up With Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a good source of the healthy legume–and one that’s easy to swallow. After all, who can resist a peanut-butter sandwich or peanut-butter cookies?

According to Clark, peanut butter is a good source of energy for athletic women. “It’s an affordable source of calories,” she says. “If you are a hungry athlete who needs 3,000 or more calories a day, you can spend a significant amount of money fueling yourself. Peanut butter can do the job without breaking the bank. One hundred calories of peanut butter (about one tablespoon) costs about five cents, and you get four grams of protein.”

As tasty as peanut butter is, Melanie Polk, M.M.S.C., R.D., director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research, warns that the process of making peanut butter makes it less healthful than unprocessed peanuts. “Peanut butter is typically not just peanuts,” Polk says. “Most commercial peanut butter has hydrogenated fat, which can make it less desirable.”

The process of creating hydrogenated fat produces trans-fatty acids, which are believed to behave the same way as saturated fats and possibly to increase the risk of heart disease when eaten to excess.

Don’t think this means you have to deny yourself the occasional peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. “You can buy peanut butter that doesn’t have hydrogenated fat added, like the natural kind, or the type that’s just peanuts and salt,” Polk suggests. These types have oils that rise to the top. You can either mix this into the peanut butter or decrease the overall fat content by pouring it off.

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