From a boost in fiber to lower cholesterol, don’t miss out on all that legumes have to offer.
Beans may get a bad rap for making people gassy, but that’s no reason to cut them out of your diet. Experts recommend you consume up to 3 cups of the legumes a week—because they are so good for your health. And the more you eat, the less likely you are to have tummy trouble. “People who eat beans on a consistent basis experience less gas and bloating than people who consume them less often,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health‘s contributing nutrition editor and author of Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast ($20; amazon.com). You have so many varieties to choose from—black beans, navy beans, and kidney beans to name a few. Read on to find out why they’re so good for your health, and delicious new ways to make them.
Beans pack a lot of fiber
Fiber helps your body feel full, so you don’t need to eat as much throughout the day. While current dietary guidelines recommend women get about 25 grams of fiber a day, many fall short. On average, women consume just 12.1 to 13.8 grams a day. Look to beans to help you reach your goal. Just a half cup of cooked navy beans contains nearly 10 grams of fiber. “The fiber in beans doesn’t really break down,” Sass says. That means it won’t wear off much, even after you cook them. Plus, beans have fiber in both the skin and the flesh. “So when you make a white bean dip or black bean hummus, you’re really using the whole bean,” Sass says.
Beans are good for digestion
Beans contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, so they work double to keep your digestive system running smoothly. The first slows down digestion, which gives you that full feeling, and the second helps prevent constipation. And beans aren’t as bad for gas as you think. A study in the Nutrition Journal looked at the effects of pinto beans and black beans on the GI tract. Participants ate a half cup of either bean every day for three weeks. Though a little less than half reported increased flatulence in the first week, most of them felt it had dissipated by the third week. “People’s concerns about excessive flatulence from eating beans may be exaggerated,” the study concluded. Just be sure to drink lots of water—you need it to help all that fiber move through your GI tract, Sass says.
Beans can help regulate blood sugar
On top of being high in fiber, most beans also score low on the glycemic index, a ranking of foods based on how they affect blood sugar. “Because of the fiber and protein, the carbs in beans get absorbed at a slower rate over a longer period of time,” Sass says. That helps keep your blood sugar steady—one reason beans are thought to help keep diabetes at bay. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine even found that people with type 2 diabetes who consumed one cup of beans daily for three weeks were able to maintain a lower blood sugar and blood pressure than when they started the diet.
Beans can help lower cholesterol
High levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) can stick to the walls of your blood vessels, causing inflammation and plaque buildup. A healthy cardiovascular system starts with what you eat, and beans are one low-fat food you want on your team. “The soluble fiber in beans binds to cholesterol in the GI tract, which prevents it from being absorbed in the blood,” Sass says. Even more reason to get in at least 3/4 cup every day: a study in the Canadian Medical Journal found that eating one serving of beans, peas, chickpeas, or lentils daily can reduce your LDL levels by 5% and your chances of developing cardiovascular disease by 5 to 6%.
Beans are good for your heart
A diet rich in beans is good news for your heart. “With every 1% reduction of total blood cholesterol, there is about a 2% reduction in the risk of heart attack,” Sass says. Then there’s their high fiber content. A study in the British Medical Journal looked at the relationship between fiber intake and heart disease as well as cardiovascular disease. Researchers found that getting in an additional 7 grams of fiber per day could significantly lower your risk of developing either condition by 9%. Beans are also good sources of potassium and magnesium, key minerals for your heart. Potassium naturally removes excess sodium and water from your system, which can reduce blood pressure, Sass says. Magnesium on the other hand aids in nerve function and blood pressure regulation, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Beans can keep weight in check
In addition to belly-filling fiber, beans are loaded with protein, another nutrient that curbs cravings. “Because the protein and fiber in beans delay stomach emptying, you feel fuller longer and have a delayed return of hunger,” Sass says. While many people turn to meat for their protein fix, most don’t realize that beans are stocked with the nutrient too. A half cup of cooked black beans for example contains nearly 8 grams of protein. Even better, the low-fat nature of beans makes it easier for you to lose weight. A lot of that has to do with how beans get processed in your system. “In the GI tract, fiber fills you up, but it doesn’t get digested and absorbed into the blood stream where it either has to be burned or stored,” Sass says. More reason to make beans your superfood for weight loss.
Beans are high in iron
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States and the leading cause of anemia, a condition where the body has a lower-than-normal red blood cell count. Current guidelines suggest women get about 18 milligrams of iron a day, but many fall short of that goal. Eating beans is one way to get started on boosting your iron intake: a half cup of cooked lentils for instance has 3.3 milligrams. However, because beans are a plant food, they contain non-heme iron, which isn’t as readily absorbed as the heme iron you find in meat. For better absorption, it’s recommended you eat beans with foods high in vitamin C. “Vitamin C gives non-heme iron a sizable boost, upping its absorption by six times,” Sass says. “So pair beans with foods like bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, and citrus.”
Beans are a good source of B vitamins
In many bean varieties, you’ll find thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, B6, and folate—B vitamins that help you convert food to energy, boost good cholesterol, and reduce inflammation, among other things. Research has shown that folate and B6 may be helpful for lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease, too. A Japanese study in Stroke found that higher consumption of folate and B6 was associated with fewer deaths from heart failure in men, plus fewer deaths from stroke, heart disease, and total cardiovascular events in women. While you can also get your intake of B vitamins from fish, whole grains, and veggies, adding beans to your diet is a great way to keep your body going strong.
They may reduce cancer risk
Beans are rich in antioxidants, which protect against free radicals that could damage your cells and lead to cancer. Women who ate beans or lentils at least two times a week over 8 years were less likely to develop breast cancer than those who only ate them once a month or less in a study of more than 90,000 women published in the International Journal of Cancer. Another study in The Journal of Cancer Research found women who consumed four or more servings of legumes a week had a lower incidence of colorectal polyps, a precursor to both colon and rectal cancers. Other natural substances in beans could also play a part in fighting cancer. “One in particular called saponins has been shown to block the reproduction of cancer cells and slow the growth of tumors,” Sass says. Just another reason to give beans more love.