Americans eat about 4 pounds of peanut butter per person per year. But years of fat phobia and assumptions that foods that taste rich or indulgent can’t possibly be part of a healthy diet have left many people wondering: Is peanut butter actually good for you?

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“We all grew up with peanut butter, and we loved it, and guess what—it really is good for you,” says Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., R.D., clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.

Like all nut butters, peanut butter is a convenient source of protein, and it comes packaged with an added bonus that is rare for protein foods: Fiber, about 2 grams per 2-tablespoon serving. This nutrient can help you feel fuller longer, helps keep your digestion system in good working order, and may lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health.

Healthy Fat

Peanut butter also packs additional heart-health benefits thanks to the monounsaturated fat it contains. Monounsaturated fat can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. “The type of fat in peanut butter is the fat we want,” says Blake. That’s one reason why you might want to steer clear of reduced-fat peanut butter—you’re cutting back on the very nutrient that makes peanut butter especially good for you. These products also often have added sugars to make them more palatable, and can pack just as many calories as regular peanut butter.

Peanut butter is also a decent source of magnesium, with 14 percent of your daily need in 2 tablespoons. This mineral is important for glucose metabolism, and research shows that people who have higher intakes of magnesium have a significantly lower risk for diabetes. Increasing magnesium may also help reduce stroke risk and build bone density in older women.

Type Matters

When you’re choosing a peanut butter, keep this in mind: The benefits come from the peanuts themselves. And many peanut butters contain nothing more than nuts and maybe some salt. As brands begin to add in other ingredients, like sugars for sweetness and hydrogenated or palm oil to keep the product from separating, they displace some of the nutrients from the peanuts. (Check labels: Even “natural” products may not be just peanuts and salt.)

In a recent study that looked at the heart health benefits of nuts, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that eating peanuts reduced risk, but peanut butter did not.

This doesn't mean that peanut butter isn't healthy, just that they did not find an effect. One reason why peanut butter didn't rank as being good for you in this study may be because people tend to eat peanut butter with foods that are mostly white flour or are high in added sugars, such as white bread and jelly. It may also be that salt and sweeteners such as honey or sugars added to many peanut butters cancel out some of the nut butter's benefits.  

Making a Healthy PB&J

Jelly and jam are mostly sugars, with much of it added, rather than from the fruit. A tablespoon has around 50 calories and about 12 grams of sugars, so don't go overboard. If you opt for a fruit spread (with no added sugars), a tablespoon has around 40 calories and 8 grams of sugars. You can also use slices of fruit instead of jelly or jam. Try sliced apricots, bananas, berries, or pears. You'll be cutting back on the sugars and adding a little fiber to your sandwich.

As for the bread, the smart choice is whole wheat or another whole grain. Be sure to read labels carefully. Terms like "multigrain" or "7 grain" may sound like whole grain, but they aren't always.

Whole grains should be the only grains in the ingredients list; if a bread contains enriched flour or wheat flour, it isn't 100 percent whole grain.