If I’m working with a patient or client who incorporates snacks into their daily fueling routine, one of the most frequent “go-to” snack choices I hear are peanuts or another member of the nut family, such as almonds or cashews. Strategic snacking between meals is one of the best ways to promote appetite management, improve daily nutrition intake and manage energy levels, which strongly correlate with blood sugar levels. Pairing certain foods and nutrients together can help stabilize blood sugar, leading to steady energy levels, rather than distracting highs and lows. This is where peanuts come in.
Glycemic index is a value used to quantify the amount that a given food raises blood sugar levels. The values range from 0-100, with lower values indicating less robust blood sugar responses, and higher values indicating a significant increase in blood sugar. One serving of a cereal like corn flakes has a high GI of 81, whereas one serving of soy beans has a GI of approximately 16. Peanuts measure even lower at 14, which means they can help prevent spikes in blood sugar and contribute to a slower and steadier increase in energy. For type 1 and insulin-dependent type 2 diabetics, this translates to reduced insulin needs.
Recently, new research has shown that the consumption of peanuts and peanut butter can be an effective strategy to stabilize blood sugar and in turn, prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes for those with prediabetes, as well as those with a heightened risk due to a variety of factors, like chronically high blood sugar values, drastic fluctuations in energy levels.
A study published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who consumed peanut butter five times per week reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 21 percent. Additionally, in 2019, the Journal of American Nutrition published research exploring the effect of peanut butter on blood sugar when added to a meal with a high glycemic load. Results showed that the subsequent blood sugar response was significantly lower than when peanut butter was not included in the meal.
The magic lies in the nutrient composition of a peanut, which is low in carbohydrate and high in unsaturated fat. One handful of peanuts also delivers seven grams of plant-based protein in conjunction with fiber. That’s more plant-based protein than any other nut, with more protein per serving than half of a cup of chickpeas. When eating a meal or snack high in carbohydrate or with a high ability to raise your blood sugar, simultaneously consuming foods rich in protein or unsaturated fat adds balance to your blood sugar. Peanuts are an excellent choice to play this role, and for this reason some scientists call peanuts a “superfood.” In addition to protein and healthy fats, peanuts also contain 19 micronutrients, including niacin, vitamin E and manganese, which function as antioxidants and contribute to overall health.
Speaking of antioxidants, they can improve vascular function and biomarkers such as blood lipids and cholesterol. Peanuts are a significant source of resveratrol, a nutrient that has recently received increased attention because of its antioxidant capacity. Resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine, can open blood vessels and improve blood flow. Peanut butter is very close to grape juice in terms of resveratrol content. If you’re trying to up your antioxidant intake, opt for peanut butter, which has three times the reservatrol as roasted peanuts. A study examining bloodwork in response to an evening snack demonstrated that consuming 1 serving of peanuts before bed can reduce blood triglyceride levels. No wonder the World Health Organization and United States Department of Agriculture both recommend eating nuts daily.
Despite strong data to support the inclusion of peanuts and/or peanut butter as part of our daily nutrition intake, many shy away from nuts due to the perception that they’re fattening. Almost every day, a patient will tell me they eat peanuts for a snack, and then follow up with “I know that’s bad!”, or cringe with guilt. While peanuts are high in fat, the type of fat found in nuts is the healthier, protective, unsaturated fat that provides wonderful health benefits. Consumption in moderate amounts has been shown to have no effect on body weight, and might even help the body burn more energy.
Other forms of nuts and nut butters provide generally similar nutrition benefits, with a few minute nuances. Peanuts and peanut butter can be a cost-friendly addition to your daily fueling routine. Peanuts can improve blood sugar management, energy levels, cardiovascular markers, stimulate satiety and help regulate appetite. Instead of avoiding this nutrient dense food, pack on the peanuts!
Emma Willingham is a registered dietitian who practices in an outpatient hospital clinic and through her private practice, Fuel with Emma. Willingham specializes in sports-performance nutrition, weight management and nutrition counseling, and aims to promote a resilient relationship between food, mind and body. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.