I love magic: a seemingly innocuous action that results in amazing change. When I was a child, the magic beans that changed the life of Jack and his mother in the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” fascinated me. While beans have never led me to material riches, they have enhanced my overall wellness. Beans are one of the healthiest foods—they are high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and provide important nutrients such as fiber, calcium, iron, folic acid, and potassium. If that list of health-giving vitamins, minerals, and nutrients isn’t enough to convince you to add beans to your diet, studies show that they lower cholesterol and protect against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. There is no question of the magic of beans; the only question is how you will add their magic to your life.
Beans are one of the most concentrated whole-food sources of protein, second only to animal protein. This, along with being one of the cheapest sources of protein, earned beans the nickname “the poor people’s meat,” but it also elevated them to the status of a staple food in the diets of many around the world. For those seeking to eliminate animal protein or better balance animal- and plant-based protein in their diet, beans are a critical addition. Yes, the quality of protein from beans alone is lower than from that of meat due to the lack of a full balance of essential amino acids. However, when beans are combined with grains, they provide the amino acids needed to form a complete protein. Cultures from around the world have created their own style of bean and grain combinations—rice and beans, couscous and chickpeas, lentils and barley—that are both easy to make and delicious.
With approximately thirteen thousand types of beans grown in the world, there is no shortage of varieties. And all varieties, generally speaking, have similar nutritional values. Nearly all beans are high in protein, folic acid, and dietary fiber. For most people, the largest roadblock in adding beans to their diet is the digestibility and the gas-making effects. It is possible to mitigate this issue through cooking methods. Further, some people find that the bean species makes a difference; common beans may be easier to digest than chickpeas, lentils easier than common beans, etc. To determine the best beans for your health and body (especially your digestion), an understanding of the nutrition and health benefits of beans as a whole, the highlighted benefits of specific bean varieties, and how to incorporate bean varieties into your cooking is necessary.
Composed of amino acids (building blocks of protein), this essential nutrient aids in the healing of wounds and the growth of hair, skin, and nails; provides a substantial amount of energy and satiation; catalyzes metabolic reactions; and promotes a healthy hormonal and immune system response.
A non-digestible carbohydrate, fiber provides a feeling of fullness, aids digestive support, helps provide the movement and excretion of bodily wastes, and aids blood-sugar stability.
Studies reveal that fiber can lower cholesterol and aids in preventing blood-sugar levels from spiking too quickly after a meal. This is especially beneficial for those with diabetes, insulin resistance, or hypoglycemia.
Folate or Folic Acid
An important nutrient necessary for normal cell division during pregnancy and infancy, folic acid (vitamin B9) plays a powerful role in the developing infant. For adults, vitamin B9 is also essential for proper metabolism, aiding in energy and the production of red blood cells.
Folic acid may play a role in decreasing chances of heart attack, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease in individuals with heart disease by helping to lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
Iron is an essential trace mineral that transports oxygen in red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body, aiding energy and endurance.
Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
Thiamine, or vitamin B1, plays an active role in metabolizing carbohydrates into a useable form of energy. B1 also contributes toward proper nerve function and acts as a coenzyme to convert ketones into other coenzymes necessary for cell metabolism.
Manganese is responsible for production and maintenance of sex hormones, blood-sugar regulation, brain and nerve function, calcium regulation and absorption, and carbohydrate metabolism. It is also crucial for healthy cartilage and bone formation.
Magnesium is responsible for promoting cardiovascular health, muscle contraction and relaxation, energy production, and proper bone formation.
Antioxidants are important for fighting free radicals that may be associated with aging, cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Common beans, as the name suggests, are the most commonly used and most popular beans, perhaps because they are also the least expensive of the beans. Beans in this species include, but are not limited to, cannellini, black, cranberry, lima, kidney, mung, and navy beans. They are either oval or kidney-shaped and while their flavors have subtle variations, their culinary applications are nearly identical. For best results, all common beans should be soaked for at least six hours prior to cooking. Common beans are eaten alone hot or cold, or added into soups, vegetable dishes, bean salads, and green salads.
Along with being high in protein, folic acid, and dietary fiber, common beans are a good source of phosphorous, iron, potassium, magnesium, and manganese. Kidney beans, specifically, have particularly high levels of antioxidants. If you are just starting to add beans into your diet and your body needs time to adjust, mung beans are the least flatulent of the common beans.
Chickpeas are in a class all their own, differing from other beans in both their shape and texture and in the way they grow. Despite any differences, chickpeas are as nutritious and delicious as any other bean.
Chickpeas are eaten alone as side dish, roasted as a crunchy snack, or added whole or mashed into soups, croquettes, vegetable dishes, and salads. They are, perhaps, most commonly recognized in the Middle East and beyond as the bean used to make hummus and falafel.
In addition to being high in protein and fiber, chickpeas are rich in manganese and magnesium.
Lentils are tiny, disk-shaped beans that resemble split peas. They come in many different colors and varieties, including among others brown, red, French green, black, and split lentils. Brown lentils, plumper but smaller than green lentils, are one of the most popular varieties. The taste and texture vary depending on the type, but all lentils are special in that, unlike other beans, they do not need to be presoaked before cooking. Lentils are eaten alone, hot or cold, added into soups, and used in the traditional Indian dish dal (or dahl).
Besides being rich in protein and fiber, lentils are an excellent source of iron and thiamine (Vitamin B1). In addition, lentils (which contain no sulfur) are the least flatulent of all beans.
- Get the maximum bean benefit. Eat three or more cups of beans a week to reap all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients they offer.
- Save time. Cooked beans can be frozen for up to six months. Make a big batch, place in glass jars, and store them in your freezer. All you have to do is thaw them overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- Bean are an easy addition to your diet. The most common complaint I hear from my clients when advised to include beans in their diet is the amount of time and effort it takes to cook beans. While you should soak beans overnight, and cooking time ranges from thirty minutes to two hours, the active cooking time—the time during which you have to stand over the stove—is minimal. While the beans are soaking and cooking, plan other productive activities and live your life! Beans do not need a babysitter.