Low Calorie, Low Cost, No Fat… Practically Perfect in Every Way

Getting enough protein is increasingly challenging, as our usual sources are becoming more difficult to, well, swallow. Most chicken and red meat comes from a mere handful of suppliers who raise their livestock in terrible conditions, feeding them antibiotics and questionable diets. Plus there’s lots of evidence indicating that a meat-rich diet is too high in saturated fat. And many types of fish are contaminated with mercury, PCBs or other toxins. What’s a person to do? Quite simply, eat more of the humble, cheap and tasty bean.


I called nutritionist Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD, from the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to discuss the matter. Dr. Hobbs is definitely enthusiastic about beans, calling them “almost a wonder food.” Other than the well-known digestive issue (more on that in a minute), she tells me there is really nothing negative she can say about beans. They rarely cause allergies and are full of nutrition including protein. Some of the most popular beans in this country are red kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans, lima beans, and, in the South, black-eyed peas.

You may remember hearing that to complete the amino acid profile and make their protein usable by the body, it was necessary to combine beans with other foods, notably rice, at the same meal. Not true, says Dr. Hobbs. We now know that the body handles this by taking from all the foods you eat over the course of a day, making beans on their own an excellent source of protein. Even vegetarians and others who eat little or no meat or fish can get sufficient protein from about five servings a day, she says — noting this isn’t as much as it sounds like, about 2.5 cups. Beans are also an amazing source of soluble fiber, terrific for helping to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels, says Dr. Hobbs. The usual daily recommended intake of dietary fiber is from 20 to 35 grams. That’s a lot of salad and other vegetables, but just one cup of pinto beans, for example, contains a robust 14 grams of fiber, more than half of what you should eat each day.


As to that digestive issue, yes, it is possible to eat beans regularly without getting gas. Here is the secret — start slow, with a few spoonfuls a day, and build up gradually over a few weeks. Because many people don’t get enough dietary fiber, they may have a “vigorous response” when they load up their plate with beans, since they are so high in fiber. In addition, starting slow allows the gut to more gradually build up the bacteria in the intestinal flora that help with digestion of raffinose, a sugar that is found in beans and is another contributor to the “bean problem.” Some people swear that taking a Beano tablet, or another product containing the digestive enzyme alpha-d-galactosidase, before the meal, takes care of the problem, but others find it no use at all. By starting slow, you should be able to completely avert the issue of to Beano or not.


People often wonder if canned beans are an acceptable substitute for bagged dried beans that require four to eight hours of soaking. Dr. Hobbs responds that it is really an issue of convenience. Most foods are more nutritious eaten as close as possible to their natural state. But she says that the nutritional differences in canned and dried beans are marginal and if you prefer to reach for a can rather than prepare ahead, you can rest easy. Do give canned beans a thorough rinse in a colander before you use them — it gets rid of excess sodium. Also, soak dried beans overnight (some varieties, including soy, may require longer soaking periods, up to 24 hours) and be sure to change the water several times — this washes away and breaks down gas-causing particles in addition to cleaning the beans and removing any impurities such as tiny pebbles that make their way into the bag. Cooked beans will keep about six months in the freezer and for up to five days in the refrigerator.

For people who enjoy cooking — or for that matter eating — beans are the basis of a seemingly endless variety of dishes, limited only by your imagination or selection of cookbooks. To make a south-of-the-border dinner, Dr. Hobbs mashes pinto beans or uses whole black beans and adds them to rice, avocado slices, mashed sweet potatoes and salsa and puts them in taco shells. For Cuban Black Beans and Rice, she says to sauté onions, celery and bell peppers, add four cans of black beans, a bay leaf, cumin, oregano and lemon juice and cook for half an hour on top of the stove. Tuscans, whom other Italians call “bean eaters,” make a hearty winter soup with white cannellini beans that simmer stovetop in chicken broth along with numerous vegetables. A colorful summer cold dish is made up of just black beans, chopped red peppers, corn, onions (optional) and cilantro stirred together with a light vinaigrette. Beans are excellent in any kind of rice and in salads — try navy beans sautéed with garlic and olive oil, finished off with lemon zest and placed on top of a pile of uncooked arugula. For even more ideas, Dr. Hobbs suggests visiting ethnic markets to learn more about the variety of beans used by different cultures and the many interesting ways they are prepared around the world.