Beans deserve a bigger place in our diets. Many countries have a high intake of beans. In eastern and southern Africa the annual per capita consumption of beans is 110 pounds. In the U.S.A, it is a mere 7.2 pounds. Beans are a “super food” because of the many benefits from consuming them:
- Lowering risk of colon cancer
- Reducing blood cholesterol, as well as LDL or “bad cholesterol,” a leading cause of heart disease
- Lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Improving diabetes control for existing type 1 and 2 diabetics
- Strengthening the immune system
Using a variety of beans including those rich in colors such as red kidney beans, pinto beans, and black beans is one strategy to increase the antioxidant content of the diet. Phenol antioxidants in dry beans promote reduced LDL oxidation, contributing to less risk of a heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.
The typical American only takes in 15 grams of dietary fiber daily while the recommendation is 20-35 grams. Just one cup of cooked beans can provide as much as 15 grams of dietary fiber. Beans are one of the best sources of dietary fiber, containing both insoluble and soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber, or “roughage”, moves quickly through the digestive system, is important in our diets because it helps promote a healthy digestive tract. During digestion, soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance, which helps the body handle fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates. Soluble fiber plays a role in helping to lower blood cholesterol levels, one of the main risk factors for the development of
Studies link high fiber diets to reduced cholesterol levels and lowered cancer risks. Beans are an extremely beneficial component in the diabetes diet because the high fiber, low fat and sodium content help control heart disease risks. In addition, beans are digested more slowly than simple carbohydrates – a good way to help control blood sugar levels, and, since fiber-rich foods like beans are filling, they help weight control. Like any source of fiber, beans should be added gradually to the diet. Consumption should be increased over a four- to eight-week period, even if it’s a bite or two per day, with a goal of one-half cup beans per day. It is also important to drink plenty of liquids when adding more fiber to your diet because fluids help reduce the natural side effects of digesting fiber-rich foods. The key is to continue eating beans once the body’s system is adjusted.
If starting with bagged dried beans, proper preparation and cooking help decrease flatulence associated with eating beans. To prepare dried beans:
- Rinse the beans under cool water and remove any stones or debris (you do not have to soak lentils or split peas)
- Soak beans in water in a large bowl that doubles the height of the beans for 8-12 hours Replace the water every few hours
- Transfer the beans to a pot and boil them for 10 minutes
- Lower the flame and simmer the beans for at least 1-2 hours or until tender
Replacing the water several times and cooking slowly decreases problems with gas. Where does the gas come from? Because the fiber and resistant starch, or soluble oligosaccharide, in the beans are not digested by intestinal enzymes, it is broken down in the gut by bacterial fermentation, producing gas as a byproduct. Although some of the flatulence people experience is from swallowed air, most is a byproduct of beneficial bacteria doing their work in the gut. Beans act as prebiotic food for the bacteria. Feeding these healthy bacteria promotes gut health, decreasing infections. A study by Winham and Hutchins found that flatulence varied by the type of bean and across individuals, but generally gas decreased significantly as beans were eaten more often. Black-eyed peas caused less of a problem than pinto and kidney beans. Commercial products such as “Beano” or Bean-zyme also aid in decreasing gas, if there is no galactosemia or allergy. These products are enzymes that can break down the resistant starch, decreasing gas production.
Beans contain an abundance of potassium. According to a health claim approved by the Food and Drug Administration, “diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.” According to USDA data, more than 80 percent of American adults do not consume the daily value for potassium (3,500 mg). One-half cup of cooked dried beans has over 300 mg. potassium; that’s more than in one-half cup of orange juice.
Our bodies do not produce folate, an important B vitamin, so it is important to get it from the foods we eat. Foods containing folate include dry beans, leafy green vegetables, fruit and fruit juices. Of all these foods, dry beans are the best source of folate. Eating one cup of cooked dry beans provides, on average, 264 mcg of folate, which can help most Americans reach their daily recommended intake. Folate plays an important role in proper cell development, which occurs rapidly during the earliest stages of pregnancy.
The USDA includes dried beans in the protein group because just 1/4 cup provides as much protein as one ounce of meat. For people on a tight budget, the cost of protein from dried beans is one-sixth the price of the same amount of protein from meat. Canned dried beans give the same amount of protein as meat at less than half the cost.
Types of dried beans and dried peas, or legumes, a number in the thousands. Some of the common ones found in stores are navy, great northern, black, pinto, garbanzo (also known as chickpeas or Indian peas), lentils, and split peas. Also available are canned dried beans, such as garbanzos, kidney beans, black beans. Others are soybeans, adzuki, and cannellini. The health benefits are present whether the bean is bagged or canned, however, the canned do have higher amounts of sodium. Salt-free canned beans are available. Rinsing and draining canned beans a couple times may decrease the sodium by up to 30%. Consider adding beans to your menus: lentil soup is a quick, hearty supper. Add canned black beans, cannellini, or kidney beans to a main dish salad. Toss cooked beans into sauteed vegetables with wholegrain pasta, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese for a delicious meal. Enjoy and reap the health benefits!