Often overlooked (and often looked down upon), beans are an important, albeit humble, food to include in your meal plan. We’re not talking about green beans here, either. Technically called legumes, the beans we’re focusing on include kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, soy beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and dried peas. Over the next three weeks, we’ll take a closer look at beans, including why they’re so good for us and how we can best fit them into our diets.
Beans date back to ancient times, and have been eaten for at least 20,000 years. Evidence shows that they were part of both Egyptian and Greek cultures. They’re even mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. Lima beans and pinto beans were part of Inca and Aztec cultures more than 5,000 years ago. Lentils and lentil soup were popular in Egypt (although regarded as “poor man’s food” in Greece). Chickpeas were an integral part of the ancient Roman culture; today they’re known as “ceci” (meaning both wart and chickpea, by the way) in Italy, and are a staple in many Italian dishes.
Although revered by royalty in some cultures, other cultures considered beans to be food for the poor. During the Great Depression in the United States, beans were promoted as an alternative to meat, which was both scarce and expensive for most people. Unfortunately, even today, beans sometimes get a bad rap as being a lowly food. Many people who emigrate to the U.S. from other countries where beans are a staple forgo their traditional bean dishes in favor of more animal-based meals (which are typically higher in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories).
What do beans have to offer in the way of nutrition? First, beans are a rich source of protein. One cup of beans contains about 16 grams of protein, the amount of protein found in 2 ounces of meat or chicken, for example. People who are vegetarians typically use beans and bean products as their main source of protein. Beans contain no cholesterol, as they’re a plant product, and only about 1 gram of fat (none of it saturated, either). A cup of beans also contains about 15 grams of fiber—about half of the daily recommended intake. And the kind of fiber in beans is largely soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease.
Beans are also a great source of iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium, as well as vitamin A and folate. As far as sodium goes, beans are naturally low in this mineral. Canned beans can be high in sodium, but some food manufacturers now sell lower-sodium versions, and canned beans can always be rinsed in a colander for several minutes to get rid of some of the sodium.
Besides being high in protein and fiber and low in fat and sodium, beans have been shown to offer many health benefits. Several studies have shown that including beans in your diet can help you lower your risk for heart disease. This lower risk lies, in part, in the fact that beans are high in soluble fiber. However, being rich in magnesium and folate also helps beans contribute to heart health. Recent research out of Hanyang University in Seoul, Korea, reveals that black soy beans may help not only lower cholesterol levels, but also lower body weight and possibly prevent diabetes. And because beans are an excellent source of fiber, they can help lower the rise in blood glucose levels after eating a meal or snack, thereby helping to improve diabetes control.
Because most beans have a low glycemic index, they can help with blood glucose control and weight control, too. Finally, beans are rich in antioxidants, powerful nutrients that can help not only fight heart disease, but other conditions, such as cancer and Parkinson disease.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll discuss how to handle some of the more uncomfortable side effects of beans, as well as ways to incorporate them into your eating plan.