Eating two spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar may seem like a guilty pleasure, but new research shows it could be a healthy habit.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that men, women, and children who ate a daily dose of peanuts or peanut butter were better able to meet the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamins and nutrients than those who steered clear.

A single serving of peanut butter is equal to two tablespoons. One ounce of nuts equals one serving.

Including peanuts and peanut butter daily in a calorie-balanced diet can help meet nutrient goals set by the U.S. government, nutritionist and study researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, says in a news release. The study was funded in part by The Peanut Institute.

The findings are published in the December issue of the Journal of American College of Nutrition.

Specifically, the diets of peanut and peanut butter eaters were higher in vitamins A (search) and E, folic acid (search), calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and fiber. Nuts are also loaded with monounsaturated fats, which have been linked to lower cholesterol.

In recent years peanut butter and nuts have been shown to be part of a healthy diet. A Harvard study in 2002 showed that women who regularly ate peanut butter and nuts had a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. And the more they ate, the lower their risk was. And in July 2003 the FDA approved a qualified health claim for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts for use in advertising and package labels.

Packages of nut products that meet the FDA’s requirement can now carry the following claim:

"Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease." An ounce and a half serving of nuts is about a third of a cup or a small handful.

In this new study, the researchers found that men and children who regularly ate nuts had lower cholesterol. There was no significant effect in women.

But peanuts and peanut butter are high in fat, so there’s a concern that eating too much could make a person gain weight.

The researchers found that calorie intake was indeed higher in people who regularly ate nuts. However, BMI — an indicator of body fat — was actually lower in nut eaters.

If you are allergic to peanuts, you do not have to eat peanut butter to get essential vitamins and nutrients. There are other ways to increase your intake of vitamins and minerals, such as eating more fruits and vegetables.

Want to learn more about the healthy effects of nuts and peanut butter? Check out what Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic has to say.

By Kelli Miller Stacy, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Griel, AE. Journal of the American College of Nutrition; vol 23: pp 1-9. News Release, The Peanut Institute.