Peanuts are a popular American snack food, and if you have diabetes you may wonder if you can also enjoy this nutritious favorite. While concerns about the impact of nuts on your weight and blood sugars may stop you in your tracks, there is good news. Peanuts, a groundnut from the legume family, and other tree nuts are linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, a common complication of diabetes. In addition, peanuts have properties that can actually help with appetite control and weight management, and peanuts in moderation do not worsen blood glucose control.
A handful of nuts -- about 1 ounce -- contains 160 calories and has the same amount of protein as an ounce of meat or chicken, while also providing 2 grams of fiber and only 5 grams of carbohydrates. Peanuts have a glycemic index of 13 and a glycemic load of 1 -- both very low -- which means the carbohydrates in peanuts trigger less of a blood sugar spike compared to other foods with the same amount of carbohydrates. Peanuts are also nutrient-rich, as they contain heart healthy unsaturated fats, and are a good source of vitamin E, folate, niacin and the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, manganese and copper. Peanuts are also rich in phytochemicals -- substances with properties known to promote health and offer protection from chronic disease.
According to the American Heart Association, adults with diabetes are 2 to 4 times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke compared to adults without diabetes. Consuming peanuts may help lower this risk. Research featured in the May 2015 issue of "JAMA Internal Medicine" followed over 200,000 people for at least 5 years, comparing peanut and tree nut consumption in adults to death rates. Researchers found that U.S. study participants eating peanuts or other nuts daily had a 21 percent lower death rate from any cause -- including cardiovascular disease -- compared to study participants who never ate these nuts. While the unsaturated fats in peanuts have positive effects on blood cholesterol levels, the other nutrients and phytochemicals in nuts may also offer benefits. In addition, the diet becomes more heart healthy when peanuts or other nuts are incorporated into the diet instead of less nutritious snacks such as chips or candy.
Blood Sugar Control
After digestion, the body turns carbohydrates into glucose or sugar, sending this sugar into the blood so insulin can help turn it into energy. However, people with diabetes either have sluggish insulin, or don’t make enough insulin, and as a result, tend to experience high blood sugar levels. Eating moderate portions of carbohydrate-containing foods and spreading these foods throughout the day helps manage blood sugars. Peanuts are a low carbohydrate food, and small portions -- such as a handful a day -- will not likely cause a significant impact on blood sugars. A small but interesting study published in the November 2012 issue of “British Journal of Nutrition” compared the blood sugar effects of 75 g carbohydrate breakfast meals that either included peanuts or peanut butter or were devoid of nuts. Researchers found that those consuming peanut butter, and to a lesser extent, whole peanuts, had muted blood sugar spikes after both the breakfast and the lunch meal -- suggesting that peanuts may play a role in management of post-meal blood sugar levels.
Excess weight can impair insulin action and worsen blood sugar control. So with type 2 diabetes (T2DM), achieving a healthy weight is a cornerstone of therapy. A review article published in the September 2008 supplement of “Journal of Nutrition" concludes that despite their relatively high calorie content, nut consumption is not associated with higher body weight. A study that illustrates this point was published in the January 2014 issue of “Nutrition Journal.” Researchers provided an individual weight loss plan to 60 adults with type 2 diabetes, comparing a peanut-free plan to a plan in which 20 percent of the daily calories came from peanuts. After 24 weeks, both diets showed improvements in weight, despite the study group included nearly two ounces of peanuts daily.
A challenging but important strategy to control blood sugars is to eat moderate portions. Nuts are more filling than many other snack choices -- so filling that they are known to reduce food intake in the hours that follow. A review published in the January 2010 issue of “Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition” reported that when nuts are consumed, people tend to make up for 75 percent of the nut calories by eating less in subsequent meals and snacks. Since controlling appetite prevents overeating, and overeating leads to high blood sugars, nuts and peanuts can be an ally in your quest to control weight and blood sugars.
Warnings and Precautions
Incorporating moderate amounts of peanuts into a diabetes meal plan can provide benefits. In addition to adding nutrition to your diet, peanuts can be part of a diet strategy that improves blood cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. Also, a daily handful of peanuts can help control appetite and make it easier to eat the moderate portions necessary for blood sugar control. A diet that incorporates moderate amounts of nuts is not linked to weight gain or worsening of blood sugar control. However, large quantities of peanuts have the potential to provide excess calories and carbohydrates to your diet, as well as excess sodium if the nuts are salted. While some people need to avoid peanuts due to allergies, most people with diabetes can easily fit peanuts and other nuts into their meal plan. If you have questions about meal planning for diabetes, speak with a dietitian or your diabetes care team.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD