Beans Don’t Get No Respect

But they should!

Give beans and other legumes a try

Plants that produce beans occur in the legume plant family. Beans are seeds and, as such, contain everything a sprouting plant needs (except water and sunlight) to germinate and create a new plant.

The seeds of legumes occur in pods of various sizes and shapes. Sometimes we eat the immature pods along with the developing seeds, as in snow peas and garden beans. Or we can eat the fresh, immature, green seeds but not the pods. Examples include garden peas and lima beans. We can also eat dried legume seeds. Examples include what we usually call beans (pinto, black, kidney, navy, white, etc.), plus lentils, peas, and peanuts. Certain of these legumes, such as lentils and cowpeas, are often called pulses.

Sprouting seeds increases their human nutritional value. Commonly sprouted legumes include alfalfa seeds and mung beans. Sprouting seeds (and not just legume seeds) is an easy and inexpensive way to increase the nutritional value of salads. Legume seeds can be ground into tasty preparations including peanut butter and hummus (mainly garbanzo beans = chick peas). Beans can be fermented into tofu (bean curd), tempeh, miso, and natto. Soy milk enjoys widespread acceptance as an alternative to cow’s milk.

You may remember from high school biology that legumes have the ability to take biologically inactive nitrogen gas in the atmosphere and convert it into biologically active forms. This accounts for the fact that legumes (including the seeds and foliage) often have levels of protein.

Beans provide high-quality, low-cost nutrition throughout the world. A recent review noted that 50-60 percent of beans’ dry weight consists of carbohydrates. While that may alarm low-carb diet devotees, the fiber and resistant starches in beans account for their low glycemic index and glycemic load compared to other starchy foods such as potatoes and bread. Plus, our bodies digest beans relatively slowly, blunting the post-meal spike in blood sugar. Beans also provide high amounts of low-cost protein. The essential amino acids in beans complement those of whole grains, facilitating creation of human proteins. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identify beans as a recommended vegetable and protein source. Beans serve as a key dietary component for vegetarians and vegans.

Beans and bean products provide other nutritional benefits including lots of fiber and a very low ratio of total carbohydrates to fiber. We Americans eat far too little fiber to our detriment. Beans are an important part of the widely recommended Mediterranean diet and other plant-based diets. Beans contain little fat, although fat is unfairly vilified as “bad.” We can’t survive without fat.

Beans also contain essential micronutrients, including vitamins (especially folate), minerals (especially iron and potassium), and certain phytochemicals (phenolic and antioxidant compounds). Longitudinal studies show that high intake of beans predicts lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

My wife and I enjoy beans in soups and stews, especially during the winter. We particularly like lentil stew and minestrone soup. When we cook beans, we first soak them in cold water overnight then discard soaking water to reduce cooking time. Soaking also reduces gas production (see below). Also, introduce beans into your diet in small amounts to let your body adjust. We sometimes use canned beans to speed up soup and stew preparation.

How about beans for lunch? Lately, I’ve taken to eating cooked pinto or black beans, low-fat plain Greek yogurt, and salsa. The rest of the lunch includes steamed cabbage, an apple with almond butter and a carrot with hummus. The bean concoction provides 22.3 grams of protein (7.7 grams from the beans, 10.6 grams from the yogurt, 4 grams from the hummus) and 7.7 grams of fiber.

Beans can contribute to a high-quality diet and reduce risk of chronic diseases. A study of community-dwelling older US adults found that 99 percent of them regarded beans as a healthy food and 98 percent thought that beans could improve their health. Yet, only 51 percent of these older adults ate beans daily or weekly. Awareness of beans’ health-giving properties did not translate into comparable rates of bean consumption. Why not?

Some people avoid eating them due to the intestinal gas that beans produce. Fermentation of sugars in beans produces gas. No discussion about beans would be complete without mentioning flatulence. For young boys (and some older ones) flatulence is a benefit not a fault. But most people would rather not deal with flatulence.

Scientists at Arizona State University investigated perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption in three feeding trials. Different types of beans produced different flatulent responses, with pinto beans leading the way and black-eyed peas bringing up the rear. The degree of flatulence varied widely among participants. Beans led initially to an increase in flatulence (ranging from 6 to 50 percent), but the increase greatly subsided (to 3 to 20 percent) over 8- and 12-week study periods. The researchers noted that some of the increase in flatulence appeared to arise from the expectation that it would occur.

The bottom line: Beans are a high-quality, inexpensive food that deserves a place on your table. If flatulence bothers you, be patient for several weeks to allow your body to adjust to the beans in your diet.

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