Peanut butter may pack plenty of protein, fiber, and stick-to-your-ribs satisfaction, but to reap the diverse health benefits of nature’s nuts and seeds, you’ll have to look beyond the standard jar of Skippy. “We need more variety than just peanut butter,” says Susan Levin, staff dietitian for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Although most nuts and seeds share similar qualities, each boasts its own nutritional perks–from fat-burning potential to cancer protection–that become concentrated when the nuts are ground into butters. “They contain protein, unsaturated fats, and antioxidants, and are naturally low in carbs,” says Leonard Ram, MD, author of the Ram Nut Diet (Ram Nutrition, 2005). The following guide will help match the right nut butter to your health needs.
The power of almond
Rich in calcium, magnesium, and potassium, almond butter strengthens bones and helps maintain muscle and nerve function, making it ideal for athletes. These nutrients also boost the body’s immune system and help ward off disease and infection. “Almonds are one of the best food sources of vitamin E, with about one third of the daily value per ounce,” says Levin. Studies suggest that almonds may also reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Try This: To boost immunity and build muscle before or after a workout, top spelt bread with almond butter and some banana.
Cashew for energy
During his heyday, muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger swore by cashew butter. It contains iron, which, combined with its high protein content, will pump you up. Say “hasta la vista” to low energy with a spoonful. “It has less fat than other nut butters and is rich in protein,” says Levin. With the creaminess of dairy but without all that saturated fat, cashew butter too is rich in B vitamins, which boost metabolism, increase skin and muscle tone, enhance the immune and nervous systems, and promote cellular health.
Try This: Add cashew butter to a smoothie for an energy-boosting breakfast. Include it in a sauce for noodles and fish (or poultry) for added protein.
Walnut to ward off fat
“Walnuts are the best option for omega-3s,” says Levin. Eating a daily serving may lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease. A 2006 study by the Lipid Clinic in Barcelona, Spain, found that walnuts proved more effective than olive oil at countering the ill effects of high-fat foods. The reason? Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that helps maintain the elasticity of the arteries, which aids circulation.
Try This: Blend walnut butter, lemon juice, garlic, and chickpeas to create a heart-healthy hummus.
Purify with pecan
Perfect for detoxifying, pecan butter boasts a comprehensive dose of antioxidants, including vitamins A, B, and E, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. One tablespoon has 25 percent more oleic acid, a heart-healthy staple of a traditional Mediterranean diet, than a tablespoon of olive oil.
Try This: For a sweet, detoxifying snack, spread pecan butter on apples or pears.
Soy for bone health and more
Lower in fat than most nut butters, soy provides protein, fiber, and cancer-fighting phytochemicals. Soybeans are the only significant food source of isoflavones, proven to inhibit bone loss, relieve the symptoms of menopause, combat cancer, and lower cholesterol and blood glucose.
Try This: Spread soy butter on dark chocolate for a dessert rich in antioxidants and protein and low in saturated fat.
Tahini to tame aging
Made from sesame seeds, a serving has less saturated fat than peanut butter, as much protein, and more fiber. Tahini is rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins B and E, which slow cellular aging. It’s also a superior source of methionine, an amino acid that detoxifies the liver.
Try This: Keep your youth and food fresh by dressing a salad with tahini, lemon juice, and tamari for a healthy, homemade alternative to bottled dressing.
Improve your mood with hemp
“Hempseed butter stands out,” says Ani Phyo, author of Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen (Marlow & Company, 2007). “The ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is ideal,” and, she says, keeping those essential fatty acids in balance can alleviate depression. Hemp butter nourishes the body both inside and out, and it can even be used as a hydrating balm on the skin.
Try This: To replenish your skin and spirit, moisturize the body with hemp butter. You can also use it as a dip for crunchy veggies.