In countries where people are wealthier (USA, Canada, Germany, etc.), the most common health maladies tend to be associated with inactivity and a diet high in animal-based products. These ‘diseases of the rich’ include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, diverticulitis, gout, etc. In developing countries where people are more active and get little nutrition from animal sources, these ‘diseases of the rich’ are far less common. The connection is clear; eating like the poor of the world has certain advantages. This is where inexpensive foods like beans deserve special attention for their many health advantages. If not already familiar, you will soon appreciate why I view beans as a smart alternative to animal-based foods.
Beans provide an amazing amount of healthy protein and fiber. Studies have reported a reduction of 7%-8% in the risk of death for each three-fourth ounce (20 grams) increase in consumption. In one multi-country study, eating beans was the single most important dietary predictor of survival in older people. Unfortunately, the American diet typically includes less than 3 ounces of beans a day.
In addition to protein and fiber, beans provide a wide range of micronutrients (potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and polyphenols) in a healthy food that’s also low in calories. These amazing qualities shouldn’t be a surprise. Beans are a plant-based whole food that shares the limelight with many other vegetables. A diet that includes beans, together with other vegetables, fruits, and whole grains shows strong evidence for improving health when compared with the Standard American (SAD) diet.
When eaten with other foods, beans have the ability to slow the absorption of sugars in high-carbohydrate meals. By preventing spikes in blood glucose, beans can help you be less inclined to snack by keeping you feeling satisfied longer. Adding beans to your diet can improve HDL cholesterol (the good one), help lower systolic blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve fasting C peptide ( a measure associated with reduced diabetes risk). Best of all, if trying to lose weight, a balanced diet that includes beans can help your waistline shrink.
If you haven’t seen an advertisement promoting the ‘amazing soybean, you just haven’t been paying attention. The reason for this media attention is the size of the American soybean industry. Actually, most soybeans are used in animal feed or to make soy oil with only a small part used for human consumption in the form of refined soy products like soy milk, soy flour, soy protein, tofu, etc. Given that soybeans are higher in protein than other beans and have a complete protein, you may wonder why few recipes call for soybeans. Well, most other types of beans are much easier to prepare at home, make tastier dishes, provide plenty of protein, and provide excellent nutritional benefits.
If you aren’t convinced that swapping a steak for beans is the right thing to do, then consider the difference in cholesterol. With a steak, you get 100’s of milligrams of artery-clogging cholesterol, no fiber, and few micronutrients. With beans, you get zero cholesterol (same for all plants), lots of fiber, and an abundance of important nutrients. Granted, ounce for ounce, the steak has more protein, however, more is not better and for most, the excess protein will lead to long-term chronic health issues. For the average male, the daily protein needed is 56 grams per day and for the average female about 46 grams per day. With one cup of beans having about 13 to 15 grams of protein, it’s clear that meeting daily protein needs is not a challenge. For most, the challenge is to not eat an excessive amount of protein.
Tips for Cooking Beans
For the most nutritious beans, you will need to cook them at home. While canned beans are nutritious and far better than no beans, they usually lose some of their micronutrients while stored in the can. A big plus for home cooked beans is the opportunity to make tasty recipes with reduced salt. Even the laziest cook can learn to easily prepare beans with a crock-pot and a few herbs. When stored in the refrigerator, a pot of beans makes an easy addition to almost any meal. When all you have to do is open the refrigerator door, it makes home cooked beans even quicker than fast food takeout.
In case you haven’t cooked beans, here are a few tips. First, examine the dry beans for any foreign particles. Fortunately, most dry beans are very clean. However, examining them a handful at a time against a contrasting colored background is better than later biting into a small stone.
Next, rinse the beans with water and then soak overnight (12 hours). Soaking will reduce cooking time. Pouring off the overnight soak water can also help reduce gas or bloating by decreasing the phytic acid levels associated with gas. For most, the gas issue has little to do with pre-soaking beans and more often the result of a low fiber diet. Low fiber diets increase transit time in the gut which gives food more fermentation time and hence more gas.
Next, cook the beans till tender. Near the end of the cooking process add tender herbs and spices. Adding late to the mix helps preserve the aromatics in your favorite spices. Bay leaf and a few other spices are best added when the beans first begin to cook.
Most beans cook nicely on low heat in a crock-pot overnight or on the stove top in about one hour. When the beans are soft, they’re ready to eat.
How to Keep Your Friends
If concerned about the windy after-effects of bean consumption, here are a few suggestions. Start with the easiest bean varieties to digest (black-eyed peas, adzuki, Anasazi, lentils, and mung beans. Until your digestive system can accommodate more, avoid the most difficult beans to digest (lima beans, navy beans, and soybeans)
If your digestive system has been tortured by years of the Standard American Diet (SAD) and suffers from constipation, then food will transit your gut very slowly. This slow transit time increases fermentation of food in the gut which significantly increases gas and the associated odor of the gas. As the gut heals, food transit time is quicker, less fermentation occurs, and gas loses its odor. For many people, black-eyed peas produce less than half the windy effects of kidney or black beans. So, how to keep your friends close? Well, until you have been on a healthy plant-based whole food diet for a while, stay with the safe beans. For some, an enzyme supplement called alpha-galactosidase can help break down the oligosaccharides in beans before they reach the large intestine. The enzyme is available as a supplement at most drugstores. The generic versions are usually much less expensive than brand named products like Beano.
Congratulations, for having read this far you have earned credit as a ‘Beans 101’ graduate. With success at your back, let’s move to the finer points with advice from Dr. Greger at NutritionFacts.org. For your academic record, this part will be called ‘Beans 102.’ The best part of ‘Bean 102’ is that the reading part is over and it’s all entertaining educational videos going forward.
Video 1 (4.5 minutes) – Perhaps you are wondering, if beans work to prevent disease can they help treat and reverse it as well? For a full Education Credit in bean education watch the video “Benefits of Beans for Peripheral Vascular Disease.”
Video 2 (5 minutes) – Is it possible that eating beans is as beneficial as exercise? Interestingly, a cup a day of beans, chickpeas, or lentils for three months may slow resting heart rate as much as exercising for 250 hours on a treadmill. For your next education credit watch the video, “Slow Your Beating Heart: Beans vs. Exercise.”
Video 3 (4 minutes) – Want to know how canned versus germinated beans (such as sprouted lentils) compare when it comes to protecting brain cells and destroying melanoma, kidney, and breast cancer cells? For an interesting perspective and another Bean CEU watch the video, “Cooked Beans or Sprouted Beans?”
Video 4 (3 minutes) – Can beans really replace medicines that lower cholesterol? In studies, legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, beans and split peas have reduced cholesterol so much that some may be able to get off their cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. However, to profoundly alter heart disease risk it’s necessary for most to dramatically alter their diet. For the good news and one more CEU watch the video, “Beans, Beans, They’re Good for Your Heart.”
Video 5 (2.5 minutes) – Which is better – home cooked beans or canned beans? Canned beans are more convenient, but are they as nutritious as home-cooked? And, if we do use canned, should we drain them or not? For answers watch the video, “Canned Beans or Cooked Beans?”
Video 6 (4.5 minutes) – Do people that eat beans live longer? The intake of legumes—beans, chickpeas, split peas, and lentils—may be the single most important dietary predictor of a long lifespan. But what about concerns about intestinal gas? Learn more for the video, “Increased Lifespan from Beans.”
Video 7 (3.5 minutes) – The so-called “lentil effect” or “second meal effect” describes the remarkable effect of beans to help control blood sugar levels hours, or even the next day, after consumption. Learn mode for the video, “Beans & the Second-Meal Effect.”
Video 8 (1.5 minutes) – Are soybeans better than other types of beans for heart disease prevention—or does the soy industry just have more money and clout to tout? Learn the difference from the video, “Is Soy Worth a Hill of Beans?”
With the wind at your back and ‘Bean 102’ behind you, perhaps you are wondering who is at the forefront of bean research. As it happens, NASA has a special interest in beans. Sorry to disappoint, it’s not jet propulsion. For an entertaining sidelight on beans, read more at “Beans & Gas: Clearing the Air.” For an extra serving of bean facts read, “The World’s Number 1 Longevity Food.”
By the way, if you would like to redeem your Bean Education Credits, you will not need to wait long for the reward of improved health. For the prize of longevity, you will need to wait a while longer– I expect, a very long while.
Nancy Neighbors, MD