Going Gluten-FreeFebruary 20, 2013

7 Reasons to Love Legumes

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Posted by Living Without contributor Matthew Kadey, RD

Most Americans don’t consider beans part of their everyday fare. The lowbrow legume isn’t prominent on many restaurant menus or buffet tables. Yet beans, also known as pulses, provide an essential source of daily nourishment for millions of people around the globe.

Beans are almost a perfect food. They’re inexpensive, convenient, overloaded with vital nutrients, easy to store and ultra-versatile in the kitchen. And with the notable exception of soybeans, beans are generally well tolerated by those with food allergies.

Here’s a breakdown of their standout health perks—seven reasons to reach for legumes when planning tonight’s dinner. We've got the scoop on what's best about beans.

Slim Your Waistline

A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that bean eaters had a 23 percent reduced risk of increased waist size and a 22 percent less chance of being obese compared to non-consumers. A cup of cooked beans contains a whopping 10 to 15 grams of fiber, which may help ameliorate belly bulge.

“Fiber tends to dull hunger and fill you up on fewer calories by slowing digestion, so you’re more likely to push away your plate before you’ve overeaten,” says Oregon-based registered dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.

A 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study that tracked more than 89,000 subjects for over six years discovered that those who consumed the most fiber were more likely to have trimmer waistlines. Americans tend to be seriously skimpy when it comes to fiber, consuming only an average of 15 grams daily. The current recommendations are that women shoot for 25 grams daily with men needing 38 grams for good health.

Pack in Protein

Beans are the best source of plant protein at the supermarket, providing about 15 grams per cooked cup. “And you get all this with none of the saturated fat or cholesterol baggage that comes with animal protein,” says Somer. In comparison, the same amount of brown rice has only a third as much protein.

“Studies suggest that a diet rich in protein can boost feelings of satiety, which aids in weight loss,” Somer notes. Like several other plant proteins, bean protein performs better when served with complementary foods, such as grains, nuts, and seeds, to form a “complete” protein.

Prevent Brain Fog

A serving of beans supplies about 20 percent of the daily requirement for iron. Iron is an integral component of proteins involved in transporting oxygen from the lungs to various regions of the body, including the brain and muscles.

A recent Pennsylvania State University study found that women of child-bearing age (the demographic most likely to be iron deficient) with even moderately low iron levels might be at risk for memory, attention and poor mental function.

The iron in beans, like iron in other plant foods, is poorly absorbed compared to the iron present in meat. “You can significantly boost its absorption by paring beans with vitamin C-rich foods, such as vegetables and fruits,” says Somer. “A good example is having a bowl of chili with a tossed salad.”

Lower Cancer Risk

A 2009 study by Norwegian scientists found that legume intake was protective against a number of different cancers, including colon, kidney, oral, esophagus and stomach cancers. Furthermore, in a review of dietary data collected from 90,630 women, scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who ate beans and lentils at least twice a week had a 24 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who ate them just once a month.

Beans are one of nature’s best sources of folate, a B vitamin that appears to slash cancer risk. According to Somer, that’s because folate aids in normal cell replication.

“One in three Americans are low in folate, which means when their cells replicate, there is a greater chance that abnormal cells will develop, a risk factor for cancer and other health conditions.” Folate deficiency is of particular concern for those with celiac disease and malabsorption issues.

Folate also helps to keep blood levels of homocystiene low. “If this compound rises in the blood, it causes inflammation and damage to arteries associated with heart disease and dementia,” Somer says.

Fight Diabetes and Heart Disease

A single cup serving of beans provides about 30 percent the daily requirement for magnesium, a mineral that, according to stueadies, offers protection against the development of type 2 diabetes. “Three out of 4 people are low in magnesium, which is an essential part of more than 300 reactions in the body, including helping to control blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, bone formation, and even to lower levels of stress hormones,” says Somer.

Beans also have a wealth of soluble fiber, which forms a gel-like consistency in the digestive tract to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, thus avoiding dangerously large, quick spikes in blood sugar. When Canadian scientists reviewed data from 41 studies, they determined that consuming beans as a way to lower the glycemic index (a measure of how fast food spikes blood sugar) of the diet improves long-term blood glucose control and reduces diabetes risk.

“Soluble fiber also helps flush cholesterol out of the body, thereby lowering cholesterol levels and helping lower heart disease risk,” says Somer. This view is buttressed by a 2007 study in the Journal of Nutrition that found healthy adults who consumed a half-cup of soluble fiber-rich pinto beans daily experienced an 8 per- cent reduction in cholesterol levels after three months. What’s more, University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers found that dietary fiber is protective against high CRP levels, a marker of heart-hampering inflammation.

It’s not surprising that a 19-year study of 9,632 subjects by Tulane University scientists determined that people who noshed on legumes four or more times a week were 22 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who ate them less than once weekly.

Get an Antioxidant Punch

Beans also pack a powerful antioxidant wallop. When researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested more than 100 foods for antioxidant power, beans were among the heavyweights. Those with a deep-colored coat, such as black, kidney and pinto beans, scored particularly well.

In fact, black beans carry approximately ten times the amount of antioxidants per gram as oranges, helping reduce the risk for several chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

Reduce Blood Pressure

A study in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension determined that many people could lower their blood pressure by more than 10 percent if they increased their intake of potassium-rich foods, such as beans, fruits and veggies, to the recommended daily amount of 4,700 milligrams. Potassium acts as a deterrent against rising blood pressure by increasing blood levels of nitric oxide, which dilates arteries and prevents them from clogging.

Further, an Australian study found that protein and soluble fiber may have the added benefit of lowering blood pressure. The researchers suggested legumes as a way to increase both nutrients in the diet.

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