Why Peanuts Make People Go Crazy

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Nuts. Crazy.

A few weeks ago, I posted an answer to a reader (hey Kyle H.!) question:  “Peanut butter. Yay or nay?” Poor Kyle. Little did he know he would spark a debate more heated than a Georgia peanut field on a hot July day, and I could feel the peanut frenzy building with comments like:

“So eating a peanut isn’t paleo, but using kitchen chemistry to concoct paleo cakes and cookies is ok?” 

“But are peanuts unhealthy???”

“Still eating it. I love peanut butter and really don’t think a few tablespoons on my apple is going to hurt me.”

“Native indians of south and central America have been eating peanuts for the last 7,500 years. I wonder if they’d consider them nutritious or not.”

Peanuts are tasty and apparently quite controversial.

(By the way, I am thankful for the dissenting opinions and questions and am in no way trying to single anyone out!) What became obvious to me is that certain Paleo guidelines aren’t well understood. You see, when I think of Dr. Loren Cordain – the first to write a book about this way of eating, cleverly titled The Paleo Diet – I picture his face superimposed on a painting of Moses with the Ten Commandments shouting things like:

“Thou shalt not eat peanuts or any legume!”

“Thou shalt not eat cheese! Haha, that one’ll really crush the dairy-loving spirit of the people!”

Paleo’s come a long way since the movement started and as such, has evolved over time. People figured out that damn it, trying to eat a diet with no salt or no vinegar or no butter just wasn’t as sustainable as a lifestyle because it was, well, boring. What started out as “rules” rationalized by scientific evidence have faded into conversations like, “Well, this Paleo thing sucks because we can’t eat bread or cheese or peanuts or anything fun…,” without understanding the why.

So here’s the downlow on peanuts. They’re NOT nuts. They are a bean – more technically called a legume. Legumes aren’t considered Paleo for a few reasons:

  • They contain a relatively large amount of a compound called phytate which binds to minerals in the food itself, limiting the availability to us when we eat it. (Interesting to note, so do nuts. Try not to crack out on them.)
  • Most legumes are very carb dense compared to the amount of nutrition they provide. If you’re saying you eat peanut butter for the protein, I’m calling you out 😉 You eat it because it’s delicious and fatty (and if those are your reasons, that’s fine). Peanuts are an exception to the high carb issue but fail the Paleo test for some of these other reasons.
  • Legumes contain lectins, specific proteins known to cause damage to the gut lining. The protein peanut agglutinin can do naughty things to your intestines.
  • Peanuts specifically are prone to contamination with aflatoxin.

Legumes DO have nutrition. There’s no debating that. It’s not like opening your mouth and shoveling in a spoonful of rocks. You’re going to get fiber and protein and minerals and vitamins from legumes. What you’re NOT going to get is as much nutrition compared to equal quantities of meat or produce. Usually, legumes require soaking or sprouting to reduce the phytate, and most folks just don’t want to go through that effort to make them more edible / less harmful.

It’s not always black and white, right?

Most Paleo people have decided not to eat them because Cordain said so the downsides outweigh the upsides and so avoid them. If you feel like someone can just pry the peanut butter spoon from your cold dead hand and you’re not willing to give it up, then the good news is that it’s your choice. Simple, right? You can choose to be Paleo + peanut butter or Paleo + lentils if you want. I promise no Paleo police will show up at your door. Just be honest about maybe not feeling as good or being as healthy if you make it a regular player in your diet. If you’re willing to make the trade, it’s up to you. This is where finding what’s best for your body but being honest about how good you feel is so important.

If you’re trying to get started with Paleo but you keep holding back because it’s hard to find a good source of reliable information, I’ve solved that problem for you in my new e-course.

You may want to take all legumes (and grains and dairy) out of your diet for at least 30 days – using a protocol like Whole30, then reintroduce systematically to be more aware of any sensitivities you may have. Folks with Celiac disease or other autoimmune issues are highly recommended to avoid these foods completely, but even if you’re not in that boat, you may be somewhat sensitive to them.

What to eat instead of peanut butter? Lots of other options exist, but remember that nuts also have phytate so overdoing it with those isn’t necessarily better. Virtually any nut or seed can be made into a butter. If it’s store bought, make sure it doesn’t have extra sugar and weird chemicals. Here are a few suggestions:

If you want to make your own, you’ll need a food processor or a powerful blender.

Do you still have questions about peanuts or legumes? Let me know in the comments below.

Whole and chopped peanut on old wooden table

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