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Spilling the Beans for Good Health

By Beth Sumrell, MPH, RD

Cheap and easy is a good thing when you’re talking food, and beans are one of the cheapest, easiest, and most healthful foods on the planet. What’s not to love about a high-protein, super healthy food that’s simple to prepare and can fill your cupboard for less than a couple of top shelf cocktails. Once only a lowly poor-man’s meal, beans have in recent years made it to the big time. With a growing emphasis on world cuisine, chefs love beans’ blank canvass by which to feature flavors, and nutritionists are crazy for the tiny package of powerful nutrition.

A Bean by Any Other Name
Everybody knows beans, but legumes? Not so familiar. If you really want to get technical, legume is the broad term that includes beans, peas, and lentils. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to note that America’s most popular nut, the peanut, is actually a legume. That said, while peanuts are a healthy addition to your diet, their nutrition profile better fits into a discussion of nuts than of legumes.

The classification confusion doesn’t end with legume versus bean. How do you label a high-protein meat substitute that is really a vegetable? The short answer is both ways. My Pyramid (the updated name for the USDA Food Guide Pyramid) categorizes beans in the “meat and beans” section as well as the “vegetable” section. One-quarter cup of cooked beans, peas, or lentils is considered equivalent to 1 ounce of meat. For most men under age 50, the recommendation is 6 to 6 1/2 ounces of meat or the equivalent.

What's That Smell? Don’t Blame Your Dog
It’s no secret that beans can have undesirable aftereffects, but don’t let that stop you from piling them on your plate. As with any high-fiber food, take gradual steps to increase the amount you eat—too much too soon can lead to bean bloat. If you’re bothered by beans, it only takes a few simple measures to make you a more pleasant after-meal companion.

The intestinal trouble with beans can be attributed to their oligosaccharides, a carbohydrate group that humans lack the enzyme to digest. By rinsing canned beans, you can remove some of the carbohydrate culprits (plus almost half the sodium). Also, if you’re soaking dried beans, you can make them more tolerable by dumping the water and starting with a fresh pot for cooking your beans. If you really find bean bloat to be a problem, use commercial bean digestive products that are widely available in any drugstore or supermarket; studies have shown them to be very effective in reducing the wrath.

Beans, Beans, Good for Your Heart…
As it turns out, beans really are good for your heart and a lot of other things too. Beans, in fact, have been hailed a “superfood’ by an array of respected health experts. Add to that pages and pages of scientific research indicating the many health benefits from regular bean consumption.

Not a fan of oatmeal, but looking to notch down your cholesterol? Have some black beans with breakfast. Several studies have concluded that the soluble fiber in beans can help improve lipid profiles. One particularly impressive 2001 study found that eating legumes (beans) four times a week, as opposed to only once, was associated with a 22-percent lower risk of coronary heart disease.

If protecting your heart isn’t enough for you to get on board with beans, how about their being packed with antioxidants? So packed, in fact, that the number one food on the USDA's list of 20 high antioxidant sources of common foods is, you guessed it, a bean. Of those top 20 foods, beans take up four coveted spots. Antioxidants, like those found in beans, have been linked to lowering the risk for some types of cancers.

What’s more, with their soluble fiber and low glycemic index, beans slow the rise in blood sugar after a meal, making them a great choice for people with diabetes. Dieters can enjoy that benefit too, since the low glycemic index keeps hunger at bay after eating and the fiber creates a sense of fullness.

The Vegetarian Delight
Since beans are packed with protein, they are a staple for vegetarians seeking a hunger-taming meal. But those following an omnivorous diet would be wise to follow the lead of their vegetarian brethren a few days a week. Substituting beans for meat-based dishes can help lower cholesterol, since beans are naturally cholesterol free and don’t add to the cholesterol your body already naturally makes.

When it comes to protein, you probably already know that your body makes amino acids, the building blocks of protein. But you may not know that there are nine “essential” amino acids your body doesn’t make that you can only get from food. Complete proteins are those containing all nine essential amino acids, and are contained in foods like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Only one plant-based protein is considered to be a complete protein: the soybean. Pass the edamame...

All other beans, as well as nuts and seeds, are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins as part of a daily variety of plant-based foods can provide vegetarians with their protein needs while still maintaining a meat-free lifestyle.

If you follow a vegetarian diet, create a power pair by combining beans and foods high in vitamin C. Beans are a good source of non-heme iron (only the iron in animal flesh is heme iron). Since non-heme iron isn’t as readily absorbed into the blood as heme iron, eating vitamin C-rich foods (like citrus and tomatoes) during your meal will help your body make the most of the iron in beans.

Choosing the Better Bean
Among other things, beans have a major convenience advantage: you can find them fresh, canned, frozen or dried.

If you’re lucky enough to find fresh beans (and really lucky enough to find them shelled for you) buy them if your wallet allows. In a grocery store, fresh beans are pricey, but the fresh taste and texture can’t be beat. If you find fresh beans at a farm stand, help yourself to the rare treat. Freshly harvested produce has the highest antioxidant content because of the reduced time from field to table—and you’ll be supporting local growers. Since the grocery middle man is cut, the price will likely be affordable, too.

Dried beans are a fantastic bargain, but as with any bargain, there's a catch: Most dried beans require a painstaking sorting process and soaking overnight. Since most people lack the luxury of time, it’s easy to see why shoppers are willing to pay more for the convenience of canned beans. However, since canned beans contain the most sodium, always rinse and drain them before eating. Frozen beans, though a slightly more expensive choice, are a great option since they lack the sodium of canned beans and are flash frozen at their peak, ensuring a healthy dose of flavor and nutrients.

Counting Beans
In the table below we’ve listed some of the most popular beans, including three of the four beans listed on the USDA’s top 20 antioxidant list—their ranking is noted in parentheses. When choosing beans, consider your nutritional needs: men under 50 should have 38 grams of fiber, and all men should stick to 8 milligrams of iron daily (calorie and protein requirements vary with individual weight and activity level, with more indicated for athletic men). No matter which bean you choose, as long as it’s often and regular, you’ll be on your way to better health with beans.

Bean Type Serving Size Calories Protein (grams) Fiber (grams) Iron (milligrams) Get Cooking
Pinto Beans (4) 1 cup 234 15 15 4 Toss a couple cans in the crock pot with spices, onion, and salsa and serve over brown rice for a meal that’s ready when you are.
Chickpeas (aka Garbanzo Beans) 1 cup 269 15 13 5 Roast with a little sea salt and chili powder for an easy snack, or blend with tahini and garlic for homemade hummus.
Red Kidney Beans (3) 1 cup 218 17 17 5 Reduce the meat in your chili by half, and add kidney beans to make up the difference.
Black Beans (18) 1 cup 227 15 15 4 Make a run for the border: Substitute black beans for meat in your tacos, seasoning as usual.
Soybeans 1 cup 298 29 10 9 Great toasted, lightly salted, and added to anything where you crave crunch.
Lentils 1 cup 226 18 16 7 Mix lentils with rice and combine with chopped onion and whatever veggies you have on hand (carrots, peppers). Douse with a little low-fat vinaigrette.
Navy Beans 1 cup 255 15 19 4 No time for a meal? Think again: Add navy beans to your favorite low-sodium canned vegetable soup. Pair with a toasted whole wheat roll and a slice of low fat cheese. Done.