Packed with 190 calories and 16 grams of fat per serving, peanut butter hardly sounds like the stuff that diets are made of. But two recent studies suggest people can actually lose weight by centering their meals around this popular spread.
The reason? It tastes good.
"Overweight people thought peanut butter was taboo," says , says Holly McCord, nutrition editor of Prevention magazine. "But studies now say that you don't just lose weight on the diet, but you stick with the diet better, because peanut butter is tastier and more satisfying, compared to other low-fat, high-carb diets."
McCord's new book, The Peanut Butter Diet, was prompted by two recent studies, one from Harvard University, the other from Penn State. Researchers found that a diet that includes foods with high levels of monounsaturated fats like peanut butter can help people lose weight and prevent heart disease.
Like other weight-loss programs, a peanut butter diet should be done in conjunction with exercise. And dieters are warned to avoid over-indulging — eat too much and you can gain weight.
Taste Comes First
When Prevention magazine ran an article on the peanut butter diet in March, it was the best-selling issue of the year, so the magazine decided to create a book of peanut butter recipes. They range from peanut butter oatmeal, to entrees such as Tahitian chicken with peanut butter mango sauce and curried peanut butter soup.
"The studies have concluded that taste comes first, so you have to like what you're eating, "McCord says. In studies, people in the low-fat group were jealous of those assigned to the peanut butter diet.
The Harvard study, done jointly with Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, looked at 101 people who weighed about 200 pounds each, and divided them into two groups. One group was put on a traditional low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet; the other got richer fare — the so-called peanut butter diet — that allowed them to to get 35 percent of their calories from fat, 50 percent from carbohydrates and 15 percent from protein.
But the fat in this diet was the good kind: "heart-healthy" monounsaturated fats, found in foods such as olives, nuts, avocados and peanut butter. Such fats can lower bad cholesterol and so reduce the risk of heart disease.
Researchers found that the first thing that people in the moderate fat group wanted to choose was peanut butter. Over the first six months (the "honeymoon" period in most diets), both groups lost an average of 11 pounds, McCord said.
But after 18 months, three times as many people on the higher unsaturated-fat diet had stuck with the program and kept the weight off. People in the low-fat diet regained an average of five pounds each.
Even though such research suggest the potential virtues of eating peanut butter, dieters cannot go hog wild and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar, McCord warns. As with other diets, it is important to limit portions.
In the Prevention plan, women get two servings twice a day of peanut butter (four servings total) — think of it as the equivalent of two ping-pong ball size servings. Because men tend to be larger, so are their portions: They are allotted six tablespoons of peanut butter a day (the equivalent of three ping-pong balls a day).
The diet takes off about half a pound a week, for a total of 25 pounds a year, McCord said. They also have higher calorie allowances than other diets: 1,500 a day for women, and 2,200 a day for men. Slower paced weight loss tends to help dieters keep the weight off longer.
"Most diets have calories pared down so low, you might lose a pound or two a week, but you feel so deprived, you end up breaking the diet and going back to your old habits," McCord says. "This is less stressful; you almost don't notice you're dieting."
But some critics argue that because the peanut butter diet delivers a higher proportion of its calories as fat, it contradicts the low-fat, high-carb dietary thinking of recent years. Some weight-loss experts argue this kind of eating will make many people gain weight.
Good for Your Heart
Advocates such as McCord disagree, pointing to the recent studies. They also note that the peanut butter plan is similar in many ways to the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet based on olive oil that has been shown to cut the risk of heart disease. The peanut butter diet appeals more to Americans, they note because it can be spread on something and there's no need to slave over the stove.
To be successful, the diet should be accompanied by 45 minutes of exercise each day, which can be anything from cleaning the tub, to dancing around to a tape for 10 minutes at a time.
McCord emphasizes that it is also important to stick to the diet — don't just add peanut butter to what you are already eating, unless you want to gain weight.
And some people should not try the peanut butter diet: anyone who is allergic to peanuts, children under 18 months, and pregnant women with a history of allergies or while breast-feeding. And a woman who is allergic to peanut butter shouldn't give it to her child until the child is three, to make sure he hasn't developed the same allergies.
Here is a sample from day one of the Prevention Peanut Butter Diet:
Peanut Butter Oatmeal ( click here for this and other peanut butter recipes)
Lunch: Bean burrito (restaurant or homemade).
For homemade burrito, use an 8-inch tortilla, 1/2 cup beans, and 3 Tablespoons of Salsa). 1 cup of either bell pepper strips, baby carrots, or other vegetable of your choice.
Snack: :1 cup fruit salad
Chicken and vegetable stir fry (2 cups vegetables, 2 ounces of chicken (1/2 cup). In a Chinese restaurant, ask for very little oil. Or try this safer bet, calorie wise: Sauté one teaspoon each of minced ginger and garlic, with 2 cups fresh or frozen veggie mix containing broccoli in 1 teaspoon of canola or peanut oil. Add your own chicken (pre-cooked chicken such as Perdue Short Cuts is fine.) Season with teriyaki sauce. 1/2 cup cooked brown rice (instant fine)
S'More or Peanut Butter Pudding in a Flash ( (click here.)