Beans are an important food source in the U.S. that is not utilized enough. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults in the U.S. eat at least three times more than what we are averaging. That's about three cups of beans per week. They are one of the oldest and healthiest foods you can find and they provide a lot of bang for your buck! For vegans and vegetarians, or those thinking about making the switch, beans are an extremely important protein that helps replace the nutrients one would normally receive in meat and eggs. But for us meat-lovers out there, beans should still be incorporated into your weekly meals for a myriad of beneficial reasons. Rich in protein, about one cup of beans can provide as much as 16 grams of protein.
Beans tend to have a bad rap. Mostly due to the well-known fact that they tend to cause gas. The reason beans, as well as some other types of foods like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts, cause gas is due to a type of sugar these foods contain called oligosaccharide. This particular type of sugar is not normally digestible by the human body. Because this sugar doesn't break down earlier in the digestive process, as it hits the large intestine, the bacteria (which your large intestine contains a lot of) consumes the sugar as a nutrition source which then causes the bacteria to multiply very fast. The annoying gas your body ends up with is due to the digestive process of this bacteria consuming that particular sugar. A good way to help prevent this issue is to soak and/or rinse your beans. If you are using dry, uncooked beans then you should soak the beans in water for at least eight hours prior to cooking them or using them in a recipe. If you are using cooked, canned beans then pour them out into a colander and rinse them under water for about one minute, until the water runs clear.
Another reason beans have a bad rap, and this is mainly due to a misconception, is that beans contain a lot of carbs. Yes, beans do tend to be loaded with carbs; however, it's the good kind of carbs called complex carbs. Complex carbs help provide energy to your muscles and brain and are very important to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Full of Nutrients
Beans contain a whole array of healthy nutrients, including but not limited to:
- Folate (A natural source of vitamin B9. Basically folic acid in it's most natural form.)
- Magnesium (Required for energy production, among a long list of other benefits.)
- Alpha-Linolenic Acid (A type of omega-3 fatty acid.)
- Calcium (Crucial for strong bones and teeth, helps with PMS, slimming effect on metabolism, and the list goes on.)
- Potassium (Good for muscle and nerve function as well as preventing lactic acid buildup in the muscles after working out.)
- Vitamin B6 (A co-enzyme that helps thousands of different processes work in your body and helps reduce water retention, pain in the tendons and joints, and even learning and developmental disorders.)
- Ideal source of both soluble and insoluble fiber (Help you feel full and prevent constipation.)
Reap the Benefits, Prevent Disease
So you now know that beans contain a large source of nutrients and a little bit of the benefits of those nutrients. But did you know that beans can also help fight off disease? A report by nutrition experts at Michigan State University (MSU) reviewed 25 years of research on beans and concluded that they were often overlooked as a food source that could be helping people fight a whole host of chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The report included dry beans (which included dry, packaged beans in bags) as well as pre-cooked beans (like in a can) including pinto, navy, kidney, lima, and black beans.
According to Dr. Maurice Bennink (professor of nutrition in the food science and human nutrition department at MSU) they found that it takes as little as two to four cups of dry beans per week for people to reap the positive health benefits. The report stated that...
- people who ate legumes, such as dry beans, at least four times per week had 22% lower risk of heart disease than people who ate them less than once per week.
- out of 41 countries, those with the highest bean consumption had the lowest death rates from breast, prostate, and colon cancers.
- beans promote satiety (the feeling of being "full") and provide sustained energy which helped individuals eat fewer calories and maintain a healthy weight.
- the high fiber content in beans helped people with diabetes maintain healthy blood glucose levels.
- beans are rich in antioxidant phytochemicals which reduce the damage caused by free radicals and may also reduce the risk of cancer.
Types of Beans
Some of the healthiest, and tastiest, beans include but aren't limited to...
Black Beans: Also referred to as turtle beans, black beans are loaded with antioxidants and fiber and are an excellent source of high-quality protein.
Kidney Beans: Along with lots of fiber and protein, kidney beans are an excellent source of the trace mineral, molybdenum. This mineral helps detoxify sulfites, a type of preservative added to many foods (and to which many people are sensitive).
Pinto Beans: Pinto is the Spanish word for "painted". This refers to the pinto beans' splashes of color. They are rich in antioxidants, fiber, protein, molybdenum, folate, manganese, vitamin B1, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, potassium, and copper.
Navy Beans: Navy beans got their name because they were a staple food of the U.S. Navy in the early 20th century. They are rich in fiber, protein, folate, manganese, vitamin B1, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Lima Beans: Also called "butter beans" because of their buttery texture, lima beans are high in fiber, protein, manganese, folate, potassium, iron, and copper.
Soybeans: Soybeans can be used to make tofu, soy milk and cheese, meat and dairy alternatives, and soy sauce. They are very nutritious due to their high level of essential fatty acids, dietary fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin-wise, they contain vitamin K, vitamin B2, potassium, magnesium, copper, and a high level of protein.
Lentils: Lentils are one of the most popular beans out there and are often found in soup recipes. They come in red and green varieties, though green lentils have more fiber. Both varieties are very filling and a good source of dietary fiber with about five grams of fiber in 1/2 a cup of cooked lentils. Fiber rich foods like lentils help stabilize blood sugar, lower LDL cholesterol, and provide steady energy.
Dry Beans VS. Cooked/Canned Beans
Many people prefer canned beans because they're pre-cooked and convenient. Pre-cooked beans still contain a lot of the same nutritional benefits as dry beans. Dry or canned, beans are relatively inexpensive no matter which one you decide to go with. Canned beans generally have a shelf life of about five years, whereas dry, uncooked beans can keep for up to ten years or more as long as they are stored in a dark, dry environment.
Despite the many similar benefits of canned beans, dry beans still emerge as the winner nutrition-wise, and here's why...
- Lower Sodium: Dry beans, purchased in bags, contain no sodium. Compare that to canned beans which are quite high in sodium (1/2 a cup of canned beans contains about 20% of your daily sodium requirement). If you're trying to watch your sodium levels then stick with dry beans.
- More Natural: Canned beans can last several years in their pre-cooked state due to added preservatives. When you use dry beans that you cook yourself, you know exactly what ingredients you have added and how the beans have been prepared.
- Bisphenol A (BPA): This is a chemical found in the plastic white lining of most cans of food, including canned beans. BPA has become very controversial in recent years due to studies that have come to surface showing that BPA may mimic the hormone estrogen and may contribute to certain cancers, insulin resistance, and birth defects. To limit your exposure, stay away from foods are canned with materials using BPA.
- Cheaper: Though all beans are generally a cheap source of nutrition, dry beans tend to be a lot cheaper than canned beans.
- Green Friendly: Those of us who are environmentally conscious will appreciate the fact that dry beans use less packaging then cooked beans, thereby contributing less waste to landfills and reducing our carbon footprint. They also take up less space in your cupboards than canned beans.
- More Control: Cooking your own beans gives you more flexibility in cooking them while canned beans can occasionally seem too firm or too mushy.
The one main downside to dry beans is the preparation time. Dry beans generally need to be soaked for several hours, typically overnight, then will need to cook for an hour or more to reach appropriate firmness. But, if you plan ahead, soaking and cooking times can be incorporated into your day and, in my opinion, is worth the extra time in order to reap the nutritional benefits that dry beans have to offer.