Beans don't get much respect. They're not chic or exotic, and well—they can cause gas. But beans have more protein than any vegetable, and they're loaded with energy-sustaining complex carbohydrates, folate and fiber and even provide respectable amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.
Beans, along with peas and peanuts, belong to the plant family, Leguminosae. Legumes are edible seeds enclosed in pods. Beans are inexpensive nutritional powerhouses and are linked to lower rates of disease. When dried, they have a very long shelf life and are as versatile as any food.
Your Health—Worth a Hill of Beans
Pass the pintos. Grab the garbanzos. Beans may be a key to longevity. When researchers studied the diets of men and women age 70 and older in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, they found that the consumption of legumes was the most important dietary predictor of survival. Other studies suggest that eating beans may lower your risk of cancer, heart disease and obesity.
More: Preventing Heart Disease
Eating at least four servings of beans per week lowered the risk of coronary heart disease 22 percent, according to a study of nearly 10,000 men and women in the U.S. In Costa Rica survivors of a heart attack who ate at least one serving of beans daily were significantly less likely to suffer another nonfatal attack.
The soluble fiber in legumes may explain some of the benefit, says Marisa Moore, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Some of these gel-like fibers bind with bile acids in the intestines. With less bile available to aid digestion, the body converts some of its blood cholesterol into bile. The net effect is lower blood cholesterol and a decreased risk for heart disease.
Beans' potassium, magnesium and folate likely protect the heart as well, notes Karen Collins, R.D., nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. People who eat a lot of legumes are less likely to have high blood pressure. Many studies show that high potassium and magnesium intakes are vital for healthy blood pressure levels.
The fiber, potassium, magnesium and folate in beans are tied to decreased cancer risk too, says Collins. Other phytonutrients—saponins, lignins, phytosterols—linked to disease prevention are unique to legumes. They may slow tumor growth and inhibit the reproduction of cancer cells, she says.
"New analysis of the Nurses' Health Study shows that women who ate four or more servings of legumes a week were 33 percent less likely to develop colorectal adenomas (non-cancerous tumors that are the source of most colon cancer) than those consuming one serving a week or less," says Collins. And when men and women previously diagnosed with colorectal adenomas were told to make several specific changes in their diets, those who increased their intake of beans the most were 65 percent less likely to suffer a recurrence of advanced adenomas.
Beans also contain health-boosting resistant starches, says Amy Barr, M.S., Ed.M., R.D., a communications consultant specializing in the food and nutrition industry. These carbohydrates don't break down the way other starches do, and in many ways, they act like fiber. In the large intestine, they increase the bulk of the stool, speed up transit time and provide food for friendly bacteria. Studies suggest that resistant starches promote intestinal health.
Bypass the Gas
Remember grade school rhymes? Beans, beans good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you... well, you know. Don't let fear of gas keep you from enjoying beans' versatility and nutritional punch. Research suggests that the body gradually adapts to increased bean consumption. Some cooking techniques and Beano, an over-the-counter product, may also help. The errant vapor comes from sugars and starches not completely digested by enzymes in your small intestine. Once these carbohydrates travel into the large intestine, normal, harmless bacteria make a meal out of them and produce gas in the process. Beano provides a digestive enzyme your body lacks, so take it when you sit down to your meal.
Draining canned or soaked beans also helps, as it rids your meal of some of the hard-to-digest carbohydrate. Finally, season your beans with herbs and spices. Though there's no scientific proof, some people claim that various additions decrease the noxious gas. Try tumeric, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, anise, rosemary, epazote (common in Caribbean fare) and asafoetida (found in East Indian cooking).