Beans, Beans, Beans

Legumes (a family of foods that includes beans, peas and lentils, plus foods made from them such as soy products) are among the most versatile kinds of plant foods, but they don’t always get the attention they deserve. At restaurants you may find them in a garbanzo bean curry, falafel, a tofu stir-fry or a black bean burrito, for example. At summer picnics, three-bean salad or baked beans are often favorite options.

They are an important part of a plant-based diet. Because of their nutritional composition, these economical foods have the potential to improve the diet quality and long term health of those who consume beans regularly. The same goes for other legumes such lentils and peas. It seems that one of the things people living in blue zones (regions known for the longevity of the people who live there) have in common is that beans form a regular part of their diet.   Their health benefits derive from direct attributes, such as their low saturated fat content and high content of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, substances only found in plant foods that act to help prevent cancer and many other diseases.  

The vitamin profile of beans  includes vitamin C, and seven out of the eight B-vitamins – thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, and folate—but not vitamin B-12. Additionally, the mineral composition is quite notable, with amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, selenium, iron, zinc, and potassium. Beans are a rich source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. On average, beans provide 7 or more grams of total dietary fiber per ½-cup serving. Dietary fiber intake contributes to feelings of fullness or satiety and helps maintain functioning of the digestive system.  

Beans are also a good source of protein. Just half a cup of black beans provides 8 grams of protein. It’s important to remember that there’s no need to combine beans with grains to meet all your protein needs. A variety of plant foods over the course of a day or two will do just fine. Unlike animal foods, beans are low in saturated fats and have no cholesterol.  If you worry about gas, introduce beans into your diet in small quantities and start with lentils. This will allow your gut bacteria to gradually adapt to the new foods in your diet, and so they’re less likely to cause a problem.

So add beans to your salads, use soy products such as tofu and tempeh regularly, enjoy chilis, curries, soups and stews with plenty of beans in them, and you’ll get an amazing boost to your nutrition. You can cook dried beans in bulk at home and store them in portion sized containers in the freezer, or you can buy canned beans for convenience. Lentils don’t need pre-cooking, which makes them more versatile.

To learn more about cooking with beans, see the online cooking series – Cooking with Amanda – Lentils and Beans.