Ask someone to name the food that is richest in disease-fighting antioxidants, and you’re likely to hear “blueberries” or “cranberries.” Few people are aware that red beans actually have more antioxidants than these nutritional powerhouse berries.
What makes beans so special?
Some foods are rich in protein, while others provide healthful unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals or fiber.
Beans (in a class of vegetables known as legumes) are all of the above — the ultimate “combination food,” providing maximum nutritional value, including about 15 g of protein and about 13 g of fiber per cup cooked. (A typical serving is one-half cup cooked.)
Compelling scientific evidence: In a landmark study of nearly 800 people (ages 70 and over) from Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, the risk for death over a seven-year period dropped by 7% to 8% for each 0.7 ounces (about one-quarter cup cooked) of beans consumed daily.
Bonus: It’s especially important to eat beans as we grow older. As we age, our metabolism slows, and we tend to eat less — even though we need more vitamins, minerals and other food-based chemicals to support a weakening immune system… fiber to keep digestion functioning smoothly… and protein to offset the age-related loss of muscle tissue. Beans provide all these benefits — and they’re economical and easy to eat for those who have difficulty chewing or swallowing.
WHAT NUTRITIONISTS HAVE LONG KNOWN
For people who are trying to improve their diets, beans are an excellent — though underutilized — food source. Long known by nutritionists for their exceptionally high nutritional value, beans are now the focus of growing scientific research.
Important recent studies show that beans help fight…
Cancer. Phytochemicals in beans may alter biochemistry to keep cells from becoming malignant.
Diabetes. The complex carbohydrates in beans are digested slowly, which helps maintain steady levels of blood sugar.
Heart disease. The healthful unsaturated fats in beans help slow the body’s production of artery-clogging cholesterol.
Obesity. The protein and fiber in beans satisfy the appetite more quickly and longer, reducing overall calorie consumption.
More than 100 types of beans are grown worldwide and offer similar basic nutritional advantages. However, some varieties stand out…
• Red beans not only have more antioxidants than blueberries, but also are a good source of iron (5.2 mg iron per cup cooked).
• Kidney beans are also rich in antioxidants and are an especially good source of fiber (13 g fiber per cup cooked).
• Pinto beans have been shown to reduce markers for heart disease — including total cholesterol — when one-half cup cooked was consumed daily for eight weeks, according to research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
• Lima beans are a good source of potassium and have been shown to reduce blood glucose levels.
• Navy beans, which also are a rich source of potassium as well as calcium and magnesium, have been linked to reduced risk for high blood pressure and heart attack.
• Black beans are another excellent source of antioxidants — one cup cooked offers the same antioxidant levels as a six-ounce glass of red wine.
• Garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas) have been shown to reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol by nearly 5%.
• Soybeans have higher-quality protein — it closely matches that of eggs, meat and milk — and more of it (60% of your daily needs in a single cup) than other types of beans.
Important: Soybeans are the richest source of isoflavones — phytochemicals with estrogen-like properties. Although research findings have been mixed, there is some concern that high intake of isoflavones may promote the growth of precancerous or malignant breast cancer cells. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who are at high risk for breast cancer or with a history of the disease eat no more than moderate amounts of soy foods and avoid isoflavone supplements.
BEST WAYS TO ADD BEANS TO YOUR DIET
Aim for at least three cups of cooked beans (six servings) per week. For example, you can try…
Garbanzo or kidney beans in lettuce salads.
Navy beans or black beans in soups.
Roasted soybeans (soy nuts) and edamame (fresh soybeans) as convenient snack foods.
Three-bean salad containing more dried beans (such as chickpeas and kidney beans) than yellow or green string beans.
For even more variety: Try adzuki beans in rice dishes… anasazi beans in Southwestern soups… and fava beans in stews. These varieties are available at health-food stores and most supermarkets.
NO MORE GAS!
Many people avoid beans because they can cause intestinal gas. To minimize gas, add beans to your diet gradually — start with one-quarter cup on top of a salad, for example… and increase your intake to half-cup and full-cup servings over a period of weeks.
Other gas-control secrets: Get dried beans when they’re fresh (otherwise, the beans’ natural starches degrade and become more difficult to digest). Look for a “best by” date or buy dried beans at a store where business is brisk. Soak them overnight, then rinse them thoroughly before cooking.
The high salt content of canned beans (it’s added to preserve texture) is a problem if you’re on a low-sodium diet. Canned beans typically contain 300 mg of sodium per one-cup serving. By washing the beans, you can lower the sodium content by 40% or more. Rinsing canned beans thoroughly also helps prevent intestinal gas.
When cooking dried beans, it is not necessary to add salt. However, seasonings, including salt (in moderation), can be added once the beans are cooked. For convenience, freeze serving-size portions for later use. Frozen cooked beans also are becoming increasingly available at supermarkets and are nearly sodium-free.