Almonds, almond butter and almond milk have become the darlings of the health and nutrition world in recent years. But could we be overlooking the powers of the classic peanut? A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week suggests that peanuts — which are actually legumes and not tree nuts like almonds, walnuts and cashews — might be a cost-effective way to reap the benefits of a heart-healthy diet.
RELATED: What 200 Calories of Nuts Looks Like [Infographic]
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease, a condition where the narrowing of blood vessels may lead to chest pain, stroke or heart attack, is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, every one in four deaths is due to heart problems. Nutrients like unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, phenolic antioxidants and other phytochemicals in nuts have been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, yet most of these studies focused primarily on higher-income (and predominantly white) populations. But pricey mixed nuts and almond butter (which can go for up to $13 a jar for fancier varieties) may not be the only ticket to a healthy blood-pumping organ.
Hey, Health Nuts
To explore nut consumption and mortality, Dr. Xiao-Oh Shu and a research team from Vanderbilt University analyzed data from 72,764 black and white Americans from lower income communities in the southern United States as well as 134,265 men and women from Shanghai, China. All participants were between the ages of 40 and 70. The data came from three separate ongoing studies to observe health outcomes over an extended period of time.
Participants completed structured food questionnaires that asked dietary details such as portion sizes of different food groups. Because tree nut consumption was very low among Chinese participants, their questionnaires focused only on peanut consumption. But for American subjects, with questionnaires that focused on all types of nut consumption, the research team observed that participants ate a significant amount of peanuts — this variety comprised of roughly half their nut intake.
“We are particularly interested in peanuts because they are less expensive than tree nuts,” says Dr. Shu, noting that peanuts are also more widely available to people of many races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
RELATED: 8 Low-Calorie Nut Butter Recipes
Low Cost, High Value: The Case for Peanuts
After follow-up of study participants for their survival status or cause of death, the researchers found that higher nut intake was inversely related to mortality for all three study groups. In other words, the more nuts and peanuts participants ate, no matter their race or ethnicity, the longer they lived.
Nut and peanut consumption also led to a reduced risk of mortality due specifically to cardiovascular disease across all ethnic groups. Within the American study group, the individuals that ate the highest amount of peanuts (two-thirds of an ounce a day, or roughly 19 peanuts) had a 21 percent reduced risk for overall mortality when compared to the group that ate the lowest amount of peanuts (.006 ounces a day.)
“Our study suggests that peanuts may be a potential alternative to tree nuts for heart health for individuals who are not allergic,” says Dr. Shu. She was not surprised to see similar results across such diverse populations. “The consistency supports the validity of our study’s findings,” she says.
Not into plain peanuts? You’re in luck. Dr. Shu says that peanut butter consumption was also correlated with a reduced risk of mortality. So grab a spoon and dig in… doctor’s orders!