Talk about a case of mistaken identity! While peanuts crunch and taste like nuts, they’re actually legumes. Unlike tree nuts such as almonds, peanuts belong to a different botanical family.
While other legumes like lentils and black beans are nutritious and important sources of protein and fiber, peanuts are not the health food they’re made out to be. They’re high in aflatoxin, a toxic byproduct of mold that peanuts are particularly susceptible to because they grow underground. Aflatoxin can accumulate when peanuts are stored in warm, humid conditions. Their high oil content also makes them more prone to fungal growth.
Aflatoxin makes peanuts a common food allergen, but their damage goes beyond allergies. They can bind to DNA and cause mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth and even tumors.1 Aflatoxin can also damage your liver and contribute to chronic inflammation, a deadly kind of inflammation that researchers attribute to nearly every disease.2, 3
10 Healthy Swaps for Peanuts
Fortunately, swapping peanuts out is simple. Upgrading them to almonds and other nuts provides the same crunchy satisfaction, along with a much better nutrient profile, without the reactivity.
Almonds contain good amounts of protein and fiber, and offer an excellent source of vitamin E and magnesium, a mineral that can help regulate blood sugar levels. They also provide small amounts of calcium, potassium, zinc, and B vitamins.
Talk about a great source of healthy fat: the monounsaturated fat in almonds is the same as in extra-virgin olive oil. Among its benefits, this type of fat can help:
- Normalize cholesterol levels
- Improve insulin sensitivity
- Lower inflammation
- Support a healthy brain and heart4
Almonds are also great sources of antioxidants, which help neutralize the damaging free radicals that, left unchecked, can hurt your health.
As with many nuts and seeds I discuss here, you’ll find an accompanying nut or seed butter on grocery shelves. Unsweetened almond butter is my weakness! But be careful: overeating nut butters can be very easy. Plus, many varieties contain inflammatory oils, added sugars, and more, so read labels very carefully.
These delicious recipes banish any idea that almonds are boring:
- Smoked Paprika and Cayenne Roasted Almonds
- Fresh Fruit With Cinnamon Almond Butter
- Cinnamon Almond Overnight Oats
- 5-Ingredient Paleo Chocolate Almond Butter Cups
- Gluten-Free Almond Crusted Chicken Tenders
Known for their rich, buttery flavor, pecans are a good source of protein, along with various vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. The fiber in pecans can stabilize blood sugar levels.
Pecans have the highest total flavonoid content among nuts. Along with vitamin E, flavonoids help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Pecans contain a blend of heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The more unsaturated fat is, the more unstable it is (meaning the more susceptible it is to damage, so be mindful of proper storage). Store pecans in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer to keep them fresh.
Pecans are also rich in zinc, which is important for maintaining cognitive function and preventing age-related decline in brain health.
You can buy shelled pecans, which will be fresher than de-shelled, although they’re a bit of work de-shelling (invest in a good nutcracker!). Packaged pecans sometimes contain inflammatory oils, so—I can never say this enough!—read ingredients carefully.
If you’re looking for some added zing, these two pecan recipes are sure to hit the spot:
3. Macadamia Nuts
Macadamia nuts have a creamy texture and rich, buttery flavor. Compared with other nuts, macadamia nuts are a little lower in protein and fiber. Instead, they contain the highest amount of fat in tree nuts. And most of that fat comes from the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat I mentioned earlier.
Macadamia nuts are a good source of the B vitamin thiamine, which is important for maintaining cognitive function and preventing age-related decline in brain health. They’re also a good source of magnesium, important for maintaining bone health and so much more.
One caveat: macadamia nuts are expensive. Growing conditions, a low yield compared with other nuts, and limited supply are among the reasons why. Because their outer shell is hard to crack, you’ll often find macadamia nuts de-shelled.
If they are accessible to you, I find that milk made from macadamia nuts makes for a deliciously smooth dairy-free alternative to coffee creamer! Try a splash in my 5-Minute Collagen Coffee.
It’s no coincidence that the shape of walnuts resembles a human brain: these nuts are a great source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Studies have found that regular consumption of walnuts may improve cognitive function, particularly in older adults.5 (You only need to eat an ounce or two to get those brain-boosting benefits.)
Walnuts also contain antioxidants like vitamin E, which can help protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Magnesium supports blood-sugar balance, while zinc can help protect your immune system.
You can buy walnuts shelled or de-shelled. Shelled walnuts still have the hard outer shell intact. Cracking them open can be a challenge. The reward (besides their nutrition) is that shelled walnuts tend to be fresher, and freshness is critical to preserve the fragile fatty acids.
Cashews are technically a fruit, but because they have a similar taste and texture to tree nuts, they’re often considered a nut.
Compared with true tree nuts, cashews are slightly higher in carbohydrates and a bit lower in fat (mostly as monounsaturated fat). They also provide some protein and fiber.
Nutrient-wise, cashews are high in copper, a mineral that is essential to produce collagen and the absorption of iron. Their antioxidant benefits come from vitamin E and copper, while magnesium and zinc provide additional benefits.
Looking for a unique way to enjoy cashews? This Freeze-Dried Fruit, Nut, and Seed Trail Mix combines freeze-dried berries with raw sunflower seeds and slow-roasted cashews or almonds for a healthy upgrade on the traditional mix.
Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are small, round nuts that resemble peanuts. Their rich, sweet, and slightly bitter flavor along with a crunchy, oily texture make them a smart substitute.
Hazelnuts are a good source of healthy fats (including monounsaturated fat), protein, and fiber. They also provide vitamin E, magnesium, copper, potassium, and manganese, along with moderate amounts of vitamin B6 and folate.
You’ll find hazelnuts raw or roasted. If you choose the latter, ensure they don’t contain inflammatory oils or other nasty ingredients. While you can buy them as a stand-alone nut, hazelnuts are also found in mixed-nuts cans.
7. Brazil Nuts
Native to South America and known for their rich, creamy flavor, Brazil nuts are the giant nuts you find in the aforementioned can of mixed nuts. Like cashews, Brazil nuts aren’t really nuts—they're seeds, which grow inside large, hard-shelled pods that can weigh up to two pounds.
Brazil nuts are famous for one critical nutrient: selenium. This mineral supports your immune system, thyroid gland, and many other body processes. One Brazil nut provides a whopping 68–91 mcg of selenium. 6
Other minerals in Brazil nuts include magnesium, zinc, and potassium. They contain some protein, fiber, and a blend of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
8. Sunflower Seeds
Seeds are a little different than nuts: they’re usually found inside fruits or other plants. Unlike nuts, seeds don’t have a hard outer shell. However, they provide a similar texture and nutrient profile as nuts, which makes them a smart alternative to peanuts.
Sunflower seeds are one of your best choices. They’re a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, along with protein and fiber.
These tiny seeds also contain magnesium and selenium, and their vitamin E provides antioxidant protection that may help protect your skin from damage caused by UV rays and other environmental factors.
You can buy sunflower seeds shelled or de-shelled. The former takes some work, but freshness will be your reward. If you opt for the latter, look for raw sunflower seeds or slow-roast your own. Some roasted commercial varieties contain inflammatory oils, and high heat can damage their fragile fatty acids.
9. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are another smart option. They provide nutrients like magnesium, zinc, manganese, and iron, as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, and protein. They’re also a good source of the amino acid tryptophan, which converts to serotonin and melatonin and may help improve sleep quality.
The one standout quality of pumpkin seeds are phytosterols, compounds that can help normalize cholesterol and support prostate health. Studies have shown that consuming pumpkin seeds may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer.7
If you’re looking for a deliciously bold spin on pumpkin seeds, this Roasted Jalapeño Guacamole with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds recipe is sure to please. My Paleo Brownie Protein Bar with Collagen also contains pumpkin seeds enrobed in rich dark chocolate.
Speaking of legumes that do get thumbs up: chickpeas are an easy swap for peanuts in recipes. Like other legumes, chickpeas provide a great source of fiber and plant-based protein. They also contain minerals like iron, zinc, and phosphorus for maintaining healthy bones and teeth.
While they have a different taste and texture than peanuts, you can usually substitute them with good results. Some ideas:
- Chickpeas can be blended and made into a spread like peanut butter. They also make a great dip.
- Chickpea flour can be used as a substitute for peanut flour in baking recipes.
- Chickpeas can be added to salads or wraps as a substitute for peanuts.
- Chickpeas can be used in place of peanuts in certain curries and stews, adding a similar texture and flavor.
These Roasted Spiced Chickpeas provide a delicious crunch. If you’re looking for something substantial, this Chickpea Falafel Salad with Tahini Dressing will be a dinner crowd-pleaser.
Make an Oil Change: Trade Peanut Oil for Avocado Oil or Macadamia Nut Oil
While I'm discussing peanuts, I also need to address peanut oil, which is high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Heavy processing can damage those fatty acids, creating harmful free radicals that contribute to disease.
Fortunately, you’ve got a few smart alternatives to peanut oil in cooking. One option is macadamia oil. Its mild, nutty flavor give recipes like this Jicama, Apple, and Pear Slaw an incredible flavor. The buttery, nutty flavor of avocado oil is another smart oil choice.
Become a Peanut Sleuth
When I ask people to remove the seven Hi-FI foods on The Virgin Diet, they find some are easier to give up than others. For almost everyone, peanuts are one of the easiest because swapping them out for tree nuts or seeds is so easy, providing all the crunch and satisfaction of peanuts without their reactivity.
Be aware that peanuts hide in some processed foods. The good news is that the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires that foods are labeled to identify the eight major food allergens, including peanuts. In other words, the word peanut must be on the label if the food indeed contains peanuts.
Two caveats when you buy any kind of packaged nuts and seeds:
- Maintain portion control. Nuts and seeds are easy to overeat. An ounce of nuts and seeds contains about 180 calories, which would equal two fat servings. Enjoy accordingly.
- Read labels very carefully. Many commercial nuts contain inflammatory oils, highly reactive (Hi-FI) ingredients like corn and soy, along with added sugars and other additives you don’t want. Ideally, de-shelled nuts and seeds should contain salt (if you buy salted varieties) and that’s it. Alternatively:
- Buy nuts and seeds shelled and de-shell them yourself
- Choose raw nuts and seeds
- Roast your own (try the slow-roasted almond recipe below)
Soaked and Slow-Roasted Nuts
- Place one cup of raw almonds, walnuts, or pecans and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a medium bowl, and add enough water to cover by three inches.
- Soak overnight at room temperature, then drain the nuts.
- Spread them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 140F for 8 hours.
Even under the best circumstances, you may be exposed to potential food sensitivities. DefendZyme is an ideal digestive enzyme supplement when you’re not entirely certain about a meal’s ingredients or occasionally indulge in something that may contain potential food sensitivities. This unique combination of digestive support compounds is designed to minimize the adverse effects of the occasional consumption of gluten, dairy, soy, and egg proteins as well as starchy foods and sucrose.* Order yours here.
The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern. The information here is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or condition. Statements contained here have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
- Ravaut G, Légiot A, Bergeron KF, Mounier C. Monounsaturated Fatty Acids in Obesity-Related Inflammation. Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Dec 30;22(1):330. doi: 10.3390/ijms22010330. PMID: 33396940; PMCID: PMC7795523.
- Wild CP, Turner PC. The toxicology of aflatoxins as a basis for public health decisions. Mutagenesis. 2002 Nov;17(6):471-81. doi: 10.1093/mutage/17.6.471. PMID: 12435844.
- Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, Carrera-Bastos P, Targ S, Franceschi C, Ferrucci L, Gilroy DW, Fasano A, Miller GW, Miller AH, Mantovani A, Weyand CM, Barzilai N, Goronzy JJ, Rando TA, Effros RB, Lucia A, Kleinstreuer N, Slavich GM. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat Med. 2019 Dec;25(12):1822-1832. doi: 10.1038/s41591-019-0675-0. Epub 2019 Dec 5. PMID: 31806905; PMCID: PMC7147972.
- Mekuria AN, Routledge MN, Gong YY, Sisay M. Aflatoxins as a risk factor for liver cirrhosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Pharmacol Toxicol. 2020 Jun 1;21(1):39. doi: 10.1186/s40360-020-00420-7. PMID: 32487162; PMCID: PMC7268458.
- Chauhan A, Chauhan V. Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 20;12(2):550. doi: 10.3390/nu12020550. PMID: 32093220; PMCID: PMC7071526.
- Nomikos T, Gioti K, Tsoukala M, Tenta R. Pumpkin Seed Extracts Inhibit Proliferation and Induce Autophagy in PC-3 Androgen Insensitive Prostate Cancer Cells. J Med Food. 2021 Oct;24(10):1076-1082. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2020.0200. Epub 2021 May 11. PMID: 33978471.