"The Peanut Butter Diet" (Prevention Magazine) (not necessarily endorsed by The Peanut Files!)

by Holly McCord, RD

If you're like me, peanut butter is among the foods you crave the most. It's rich, it's sticky, it tastes like roasted peanuts. It's ready whenever you are. But I've had to face two eye-opening facts about peanut butter:

1. All those calories! Two tablespoons contains 190 calories. Eat too much peanut butter, and you will gain weight--very quickly.

2. All that fat! A 2-tablespoon serving delivers 16 grams of fat--as much as in a whole hamburger from Burger King, for heaven's sake.

Then some fabulous news about peanut butter started trickling in from nutrition research laboratories. True, peanut butter is high in fat. But most of it is monounsaturated, the same "good fat" that's found in olive oil. Groundbreaking studies were proving that a diet high in monounsaturated fat from peanuts and peanut butter could actually be good for the heart, and perhaps even better than the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet most health experts were recommending. A diet high in monounsaturated fat even looked promising as a treatment for diabetes, a disease that has become epidemic in the United States.

But the best news was yet to come, especially for all those health-conscious peanut butter lovers whose biggest question was "If I eat more peanut butter, won't I pack on pounds?" The amazing answer turned out to be "Not necessarily!"

In fact, research conducted over the past few years suggests that going back to peanut butter may actually take off unwanted pounds more easily than following a standard low-fat eating plan. In one revealing experiment, almost three times as many peanut butter dieters as low-fat dieters managed to maintain their weight loss over an 18-month period.

But here's the hitch: Unless you're experienced in nutrition, designing an eating plan that packs in peanut butter plus all the nutrients you need without going overboard on calories can be extremely tricky. If you don't watch your calories, you will gain weight. A calorie is still a calorie. Eat more than you burn up, and watch that scale climb--fast.

So to help my fellow peanut butter lovers succeed in losing weight (and reap other health benefits besides), I've created the Peanut Butter Diet. It's a carefully designed plan that allows women two 2-tablespoon servings of peanut butter. That's a nice, satisfying lump of peanut butter, but it's nestled into meals and snacks in way that still control calories.

For the Peanut Butter Diet to be successful, though, you've got to stick with that 2-tablespoon serving. I'm thrilled to have found an alternative for measuring peanut butter. All you need to do is get a Ping-Pong ball and keep it on your kitchen counter. Then, whenever you want 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, use a regular kitchen spoon to dig a glob of peanut butter about the same size as your Ping-Pong ball out of the jar. It works perfectly, because as I've learned, the volume of a Ping-Pong ball is almost exactly the same as the volume of 2 measuring tablespoons.

Because the Peanut Butter Diet has more fat than the standard low-fat diet (but is at least as healthy, if not more so), and because it features America's favorite comfort food, you won't feel deprived. This means you have a better chance of staying with the plan and losing the weight you want.

According to Baltimore-based dietician Colleen Pierre, R.D., dietary fat promotes satiety, the feeling of satisfaction after a meal. "I see many clients who've been following low-fat diets full of rice cakes and water, and they wonder why they're hungry all the time," she says. "I tell them to start including fat in their meals and snacks, and they stop feeling so starved."

Actually, peanut butter may be extra-satisfying. In his own research, Richard Mattes, R.D., Ph.D., associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, discovered that people who snacked on peanut butter self-adjusted their calorie intake for the rest of the day. In other words, without being told what to do, they naturally ate fewer calories later on to come out roughly even for the day. They felt satisfied longer, too.

When participants in Dr. Matte's study were fed a typical portion of other snacks, such as rice cakes, their hunger returned within a half-hour. After a snack of peanut butter, their hunger subsided for about 2 1/2 hours.

Since the Peanut Butter Diet has so many potential health benefits, you'd naturally want to buy the peanut butter that's the healthiest, too. Maybe you prefer the "natural" varieties, made from peanut butter and sometimes salt--and that's it. Then again, maybe you prefer the pre-mixed, emulsified varieties. But these brands are rumored to pack lots of trans fats--proven to be as unhealthy for cholesterol readings as saturated fat, and possibly more so.

To my surprise, laboratory analysis of emulsified peanut butter shows that every brand analyzed had ultra-low levels of trans fats. In fact, they were at least 100 times lower than 0.5 grams per 2 tablespoons, the level at which, under a proposed FDA labeling law, a manufacturer could describe a product as trans fat-free.

It seemed too good to be true. So just to make sure, my Prevention magazine colleagues and I sent out our own samples of popular national and store brands to a different independent testing laboratory. Guess what? Our results were identical to those obtained by The Peanut Institute: All of the brands had trans fat levels at least 100 times lower than what the FDA had defined as trans fat-free.

But what if you do slip and eat too much? "Try harder to break the cycle of bingeing and starving, but not by swearing off peanut butter forever. That's probably what got you in this jam in the first place," Pierre says. "Go back to your 4 or 6 tablespoons a day. Eventually, peanut butter will seem normal instead of naughty."

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