Nuts (For) You!

 

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Tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds and pecans are hailed for their health-offering content. But guess what? Peanuts, which literally cost ‘peanuts’ compared to tree nuts, offer essentially the same health-promoting benefits, according to a study published recently online at JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

Daniel Pendick, former Executive Editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, took a look at that study – as you can, here – and reported that its findings should be good news for peanut lovers who’ve tended to avoid them, and perhaps some other nuts, because of their high fat content. The study, he said, “puts the humble peanut squarely in the same nutritional league as its upscale cousins.”

That means, in short, that the health benefits of nut-eating – including better heart health and a good chance you’ll live longer than if you don’t eat nuts – are as accessible to people with limited budgets as they are to folks whose tastes (and budgets) run to cashews, or walnuts, or almonds.

How can that be? In part, says Dr. Meir Stampfer, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, because “botanically, peanuts are not nuts, but nutritionally they are very similar to tree nuts, and other studies have shown their benefits” to be much the same as their higher-priced nut-named ‘cousins’.

The major difference between these two types of edibles, according to the cleverly-named website differencesbetween.net, in that “nuts grow on trees whereas peanuts grow underground. Nuts also are called tree nuts, and peanuts are legumes.”

The comparative description continues on that site: “According to botany, a nut is a shell-covered fruit of a plant or tree. The inner part in the hard shell is called kernel which is edible. The nut is hard, one-seeded or at the most may have two seeds would not split open to scatter its seeds when matured. On the other hand, the peanut pods have multiple seeds found in a single legume. It is easy to split open to scatter its seeds when matured. Nuts are ‘indehiscent’ – their ‘pod doesn’t split open when ripe – “whereas legumes are ‘dehiscent’.” The latter term means, “A bursting open or splitting along natural or sutured lines – the spontaneous opening at maturity of a plant structure, such as a fruit, anther, or sporangium, to release its contents,” as peanuts are prone to do, according to dictionary.com.

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So, while peanuts, as legumes, are more closely related to soybeans and lentils than to almonds and walnuts, like tree nuts, they can be eaten as a filling snack or as a protein-boosting ingredient in many salads and other dishes; An ounce a day of nuts — roughly a quarter cup or a small handful — is a generally healthy portion, Pendick reported.

Peanuts actually are considered ‘safer’ that tree nuts for people (such as me) whose diets are restricted because they suffer from CKD – Chronic Kidney Disease. As is the case for ‘ordinary’ eaters, though, the portion size should be limited.

And as for the fat issue, raw peanuts, which is seldom the consumption style of choice, contain close to 18 g of fat per a 36.5 g, .25 cup, serving. But look at what else they contain in the vitamins and minerals section of the (just cited) chart on the whfoods.com website! (Keep in mind that cooked peanuts – often boiled in oil of some kind or, among other production options, dry-roasted  – pick up extra fat during such processing.

Nevertheless, Dr. Stampfer says, “compared with other ‘health foods,’ nuts and peanuts have some pretty compelling evidence behind them. Even if you don’t like nuts, it would still be a good idea to eat a handful every day,” he declares.

The JAMA Internal Medicine study looked at nut and peanut consumption in two large groups of people spanning geographic, racial, ethnic, and income boundaries:

  • 72,000 Americans, ages 40 to 79, living in 12 Southern states. Most lived on low incomes and two-thirds were African American.
  • 135,000 men and women in Shanghai, China, ages 40 to 74.

The researchers used surveys to tally nut and peanut consumption. They followed the groups for several years and counted how many participants died and from what causes. In the U.S. Southern states group, those who regularly ate peanuts were 21% less likely to have died of any cause over a period of about five years. In the Chinese groups, who were followed for six to 12 years, the death rate in nut-eaters was 17% lower.

For all the groups, the researchers accounted for unhealthy influences like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, which were especially common in the Southern states group.

The diversity of the participants in this new study is important. Those in the earlier Harvard studies were mostly white health professionals who were more educated and earned higher incomes than most people in the Southern states group. And in studies that just observe large groups of people over time and what they eat, such as the Harvard studies, scientists can’t be certain whether any health improvements have more to do with the participants’ lifestyles or genes rather than what the food is doing. Seeing the same health benefit across diverse groups can be reassuring.

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