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Almond butter is an exceptional source of vitamin E.Brent Hofacker

The question

I've replaced cream cheese on my toast with peanut butter to get protein at breakfast. Is there a healthier nut butter I should be using instead? I know peanut butter is fattening. What's the right portion size if I am trying to lose weight?

The answer

Switching from cream cheese to peanut butter is a wise choice, nutritionally speaking. Peanut butter may be higher in calories than cream cheese (95 calories per tablespoon versus 50), but it delivers what cream cheese doesn't: heart-healthy fats, fibre, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and phytochemicals.

Peanut butter is also a much better source of protein than cream cheese. Two tablespoons serve up seven grams of protein, whereas the same amount of cream cheese has only one gram. (To feel satisfied and energized throughout the morning, include at least 10 grams of protein at breakfast.)

But if you spread peanut butter on your toast sparingly – as many calorie-conscious people do – you won't be getting as much protein as you think. One teaspoon of peanut butter, for instance, has only one gram of protein.

Nut and seed butters are made by grinding raw or roasted kernels into a spreadable paste. Salt and sugar may be added to grounded nuts. Some manufacturers add oil and emulsifiers to create a creamier product and to prevent the oil from separating out.

I prefer natural brands that contain only ground nuts (and sometimes salt). To keep the oil from separating, I store my jar of natural peanut butter upside down.

Thanks to an increasing awareness of the health benefits of nuts (and because of peanut allergies), nut butters come in several varieties, ranging from cashew to sunflower seed to walnut.

Consider the following popular nut butters and their defining nutritional qualities.

Almond butter

More than half of the fat (58 per cent) in this nut butter is monounsaturated, the type that helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream. Almond butter is an exceptional source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that prevents damage to the body's cells, and a decent source of calcium, magnesium and potassium.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 196 calories, 18 g fat, 7 g protein, 3.2 g fibre, 7.7 mg vitamin E, 112 mg calcium, 90 mg magnesium.

Cashew butter

Like almond butter, cashew butter is high in monounsaturated fat (59 per cent of its fat content). It's also a good source of magnesium and offers B vitamins, iron and potassium.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 180 calories, 15 g fat, 5 g protein, 1 g fibre, 83 mg magnesium.

Peanut butter

Rich in protein and monounsaturated fat, peanut butter provides plenty of vitamin E, copper and manganese. It's also an excellent source of niacin, a B vitamin used to make stress hormones in the adrenal glands; one serving supplies 25 per cent of the daily recommended intake.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 190 calories, 16 g fat, 7 g protein, 1.6 g fibre, 3 mg vitamin E, 4.2 mg niacin, 0.5 mg manganese.

Pumpkin seed butter

A good source of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, this protein-rich seed butter is naturally high in magnesium, zinc and copper. It's also packed with manganese, a mineral that keeps our brain and nerves working properly.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 160 calories, 13 g fat, 10 g protein, 2 g fibre, 156 mg magnesium, 2.2 mg zinc, 1.3 mg manganese.

Sesame seed (tahini) butter

Made from ground, toasted sesame seeds, tahini is an outstanding source of selenium, a mineral important for immunity, thyroid function and protecting cells against free-radical damage. Tahini also provides calcium, iron, copper and cholesterol-lowering phytochemicals.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 180 calories, 16 g fat, 5 g protein, 3 g fibre, 138 mg calcium, 3 mg iron, 10.3 mcg selenium (adults need 55 mcg per day).

Soy nut butter

Made from roasted soybeans, soybean oil, sugar and salt, this high-protein nut butter gets most of its fat (56 per cent) from polyunsaturated fatty acids. Its nutrient content varies slightly depending on brand.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 170-200 calories, 11-16 g fat, 7-8 g protein, 2-3 g fibre, 100 mg sodium.

Sunflower seed butter

Naturally high in polyunsaturated fat (66 per cent of total fat), sunflower seed butter is a nutrient powerhouse. One serving provides nearly half a day's worth of vitamin E and selenium and more than a day's worth of zinc, a mineral needed to fight off foreign bacteria and viruses. Sunflower seed butter is also a good source of folate, copper and potassium.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 170 calories, 14 g fat, 6 g protein, 3.6 g fibre, 7.4 mg vitamin E, 1.5 mg zinc, 22.5 mcg selenium

Walnut butter

Unlike other nut and seed butters, walnut butter is an excellent source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties. Walnut butter also contains polyphenols, phytochemicals linked to brain health and improved blood flow.

  • Per 2 tablespoons: 220 calories, 21 g fat, 5 g protein, 2 g fibre, 2.6 g ALA (men and women require 1.6 and 1.1 g per day, respectively).

While all nut and seed butters are nutritious, I have a few favourites I keep in my pantry. My go-to choices for toast are protein- and vitamin E-packed almond butter and peanut butter (they're delicious, too). I add walnut butter to smoothies for a hit of omega-3s and use tahini in hummus and salad dressings.

A food guide serving of nut or seed butter is two tablespoons, about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. Keep in mind, though, that two tablespoons contains upward of 200 calories and for some varieties, more. So don't overdo it.

If you're trying to lose weight – or don't want to gain weight – adjust calories elsewhere in your diet. Substitute nut and seed butters for refined starchy foods, sweets, potato chips, pretzels and sugary drinks.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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