Full of Beans
7 Healthy Reasons to Love Your Legumes
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, plus delicious allergy-friendly recipes you won't want to miss.
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.
Given their amazing nutritional profiles, bean varieties are worth prime real estate in your pantry. Plus, they come in a dizzying array of colors, shapes, sizes, textures and satisfying tastes. Expand your gastronomic horizons by working them into salads, main dishes and even desserts.
Adzuki beans native to Asia, are diminutive, russet-color beans, with a white ridge along one edge. Particularly popular in Japanese and Chinese cooking, their sweet, nutty flavor makes them good for desserts, but they’re equally engaging in savory dishes. Fast-cooking adzuki beans may cause less gas than other bean varieties.
Chew on this: Cook 1 cup adzuki beans in 2 cups water until soft and water has been absorbed. Stir in ⅔ cup sugar until dissolved and mash into paste. Use as an alternative to jam or spread on gluten-free pancakes.
Black beans, also called turtle beans, have a smoky, meaty flavor with a velvety texture and hold their shape during cooking. They work well in heavily spiced dishes or those infused with citrus. Also try mashed black beans in brownie recipes.
Chew on this: For a refreshing, colorful salad, mix cooked black beans with chopped mango, red pepper, avocado, green onion and cilantro. Add juice of half a lime.
Cranberry beans are chestnut-flavor beans that are cream-colored with deep red marks flecked throughout. Fresh cranberry beans in their pods can sometimes be found locally in the fall and don’t require pre-soaking.
Chew on this: In a blender, combine 2 cups cooked cranberry beans, ½ cup nut butter or soy butter (if tolerated), 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 tablespoons honey and 1/3 cup unsweetened milk of choice. Blend until smooth, adding more milk if needed. Serve with sliced apples or slathered on rice cakes.
Fava beans have been a staple of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines for centuries. Dried fava beans have a rich, meaty flavor. Fresh emerald-green fava beans (also called broad beans), in season from late March to early May, have a subtle nutty flavor and a buttery texture. Add them to soups, pasta dishes, casseroles and salads.
Note: A certain rare inherited enzyme deficiency puts susceptible people at risk for allergic reaction to fava beans.
Chew on this: In a skillet, sauté chopped onions until soft. Add minced garlic and cumin powder; cook 1 to 2 minutes more. Put onion mixture into a blender, along with some gluten-free broth, fresh fava beans or cooked dried beans, and salt and pepper to taste. Puree in batches until smooth. Add to a pot, stir in fresh thyme and simmer the soup for 10 to 15 minutes.
Garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas) are dense and hearty with a toothsome, nutty taste and buttery texture. These blond beans are often the star of the show in Middle Eastern dishes, such as hummus and falafel.
Chew on this: Toss cooked garbanzo beans with vegetable oil and bake at 400 degrees until crispy, about 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Mix with sea salt, fresh rosemary and garam masala spice. Enjoy as a savory, fiber-packed snack.
Great Northern beans are a delicately flavored, cream-colored bean with slightly grainy texture. Shaped like lima beans, most Great Northern beans consumed in the United States are grown in the Midwest. Although they don’t excite the palate on their own, these beans do absorb flavors very well and are great as baked beans.
Chew on this: For a quick soup, toss cooked Great Northern beans into a pot with gluten-free broth, sliced carrots and celery, diced potatoes and onion, chopped ham and salt and pepper, to taste. Simmer until potatoes are tender and mix in fresh cilantro.
Kidney beans have a robust flavor. They’re particularly good in simmered dishes, such as chili, as they hold their shape and absorb surrounding flavors. White kidney beans are known as cannellini beans.
Chew on this: Sauté finely chopped onions, garlic and mushrooms. When cool, mix in mashed kidney beans (cooked or canned), cumin powder and salt and pepper, to taste. Form into patties and pan-fry in oil until well browned. Serve with salsa.
Lima beans, sometimes called butter beans, have a potato-like taste and buttery texture. Named for their native Peru’s capital city, lima beans are available dried or frozen all year. During summer months, you may find them fresh in their pods at farmers’ markets. A favorite use for them is in succotash.
Chew on this: Sauté fresh or cooked dried lima beans in oil with garlic. Then combine with baby spinach, diced tomatoes, cilantro and cooked brown rice pasta.
Mung beans are small, round green legumes with a sweet flavor. They’re most often used in African, Asian and Indian dishes. When sprouted, quick-cooking mung beans are usually called bean sprouts.
Chew on this: In a bowl, combine cooked mung beans, brown rice, toasted shelled sunflower seeds, chopped tomatoes, fresh mint and a dash of turmeric powder. Cut bell peppers in half lengthwise, remove seeds and fill with bean mixture. Bake until peppers are soft.
Navy beans are pea-size and creamy white. They obtained their modern-day name because they were a staple of the U.S. Navy in the early 20th century. Quick cooking, mild-flavored navy beans are perfect in dishes that don’t need the full bean shape to shine: purees, stews, soups and baked beans.
Chew on this: Make a nutritious bread or cracker spread by blending cooked navy beans in a food processor with olive oil, fresh cilantro, garlic, lemon juice, a dash of cayenne and salt.
Pinto beans are strewn with splashes of reddish-brown color. Once cooked, these favorites of Mexican cuisine (“pinto” is Spanish for “painted”) award the palate with a wonderful earthy taste and creamy texture.
Chew on this: In a bowl, mix together cooked pinto beans, cooked quinoa, diced tomatoes and cucumber, fresh parsley, corn kernels and a splash of lime for a hearty main-course salad.
Gluten-Free Mung Bean Burgers with Kiwi Lime Salsa
MAKES 8 BURGERS
This healthy riff on traditional burgers uses quick-cooking mung beans but works equally well with other bean varieties. Serve topped with this fresh salsa.
1 cup dried mung beans
1 cup gluten-free rolled oats
1 cup mushrooms, diced
½ medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin
¼–½ teaspoon cayenne
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
⅓ cup sunflower seeds, optional
3 kiwi, diced
1 jalapeño, diced and seeded
- Juice of 1 lime
⅓ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1. Soak mung beans for several hours. Bring beans to boil in 3 cups fresh water. Cover and simmer over low heat until beans soften, about 30 minutes.
2. Place beans in a food processor, along with oats, mushrooms, onion, garlic, cumin, cayenne, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Process until smooth but still grainy. Mix in sunflower seeds and process until seeds are incorporated into the bean mixture. Form into equal-size patties. If the bean mixture is too moist to form into patties, place it in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to solidify a bit.
3. Heat oil in a skillet and cook burgers over medium-high heat for about 3 to 4 minutes per side.
4. To make salsa, combine all ingredients in a bowl. Serve over mung bean burgers.
Each burger with salsa contains 196 calories, 2g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 8mg sodium, 36g carbohydrate, 8g fiber, 10g protein.
These just might be the highest fiber brownies around. So chocolaty, even kids won’t have an idea what the secret ingredient is.
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed, or ¾ cup dried black beans
5 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil, like canola or grape
1 cup sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup bean flour or other gluten-free flour
1 teaspoon xanthan or guar gum
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cayenne or chili powder, optional
½ cup chopped walnuts, optional
¼ cup dark chocolate chips, optional
1. If using dried black beans, soak them for several hours and cook them until very tender, about 60 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and set aside.
3. Add black beans to a bowl of a food processor and process until a paste forms. Add eggs, oil, sugar, cocoa, flour, xanthan gum, vanilla, baking powder and chili powder, if using. Process until smooth and well combined. Add walnuts, if using, and process until walnuts are mixed in.
4. Spread batter evenly into prepared pan. Top with chocolate chips, if using.
5. Bake in preheated oven for about 30 minutes or until an inserted tester comes out clean.
Each brownie contains 191 calories, 8g total fat, 1g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 53mg cholesterol, 180mg sodium, 27g carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 5g protein.
TIP Allergy-friendly chocolate chips are available from enjoylifefoods.com
Succotash, traditionally made with corn and tender lima beans, is a classic recipe often served at Thanksgiving, but it’s equally delicious any time of the year. Serve it as a side dish for dinner or a healthy lunch. Edamame, if tolerated, can replace the lima beans. Serve warm or chilled.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups lima beans, fresh or frozen
2 cups corn, fresh or frozen
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
½ cup parsley, chopped
- Juice of 1 lime
- Salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat and cook onion until soft, about 4 minutes. Mix in lima beans, corn and garlic and cook until beans are tender, about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Mix in tomatoes and jalapeño and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in parsley, lime juice and salt and pepper.
Each serving contains 148 calories, 3g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 40mg sodium, 28g carbohydrate, 6g fiber, 6g protein.
Canadian-based Matthew Kadey, RD, wellfedman.com, is a dietitian and a food writer.