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The Health Benefits of Beans, the Black Sheep of Superfoods

By EJ Johnson, November 12, 2019

healthy beans lentils legumesWhen you hear the term “superfood,” do beans come to mind? If not, they should—beans pack a serious nutritional punch. They are loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals that can help reduce inflammation, fend off chronic diseases, contribute to weight loss, improve gut health, and promote satiety. Here are just some of the ways beans make a great addition to your diet. 


Beans are high in protein

Incorporating beans into your diet is great way to increase your protein consumption. A half-cup serving of beans has roughly 7 grams of protein, which is about the same as an ounce of meat. By making the simple substitution of swapping the meat on your plate for beans—even for one day a week—you can incorporate more plants into your diet and lower your intake of fat, cholesterol, and calories while still meeting your protein needs.
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Polyphenols: The connection between beans, sore muscles, and cancer

Beans are high in polyphenols, a class of antioxidant. Studies have indicated that polyphenols may help to mitigate high blood pressure and even assist the immune system through antibacterial effects.[1,2] They also help to reduce inflammation and cell damage from oxidative stress, which can help improve sore muscles and training difficulty.[3] The same effects have even been linked to anti-cancer effects.[1] One study found that rats fed black or navy beans saw up to 75% reduced risk in the development of colon cancer.[4] Of course, rats and humans function quite differently, but research does suggest that beans may help to reduce your risk of certain types of cancer.

 

Fiber: Why beans are heart healthy—and cause gas

Beans are a great source of fiber, which is an indigestible plant material that has a number of health benefits. Dietary fiber slows the movement of food through your gut, which can help you feel fuller for longer and keep blood sugar spikes at bay. It's for these reasons that diets high in fiber have been linked to lower body weight, waist circumference, and body fat as well as a healthy insulin response.[5,6,11] So adding beans to a meal can help ward off that post-meal sluggishness, a side effect of blood sugar spikes. Similarly, fiber and beans are also associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease.[7] 

As it is unable to be digested by humans, most types of fiber end up being fermented by the bacteria in our gut, making it a prebiotic. Prebiotics help to improve growth of good gut bacteria, prevent the growth of bad bacteria, improve the gut barrier (preventing things like leaky gut syndrome), and improve the immune system.[7]

It should be noted that diets high in fiber can also contribute to gas, bloating, and flatulence—hence that famous limerick about beans. That's because soluble fiber, the type of fiber that forms a gel-like substance as it passes through the digestive tract, can be fermented by the bacteria in our gut, causing gas as it is broken down.[8] So if you want to up your fiber intake, it's best to slowly increase your intake to help you acclimate to increased fiber levels, and subsequently reduce the gas-inducing effects. 

 

Folate: A critical B-vitamin for recovery

Folate is a water-soluble B-vitamin that the body needs to produce new red blood cells. Otherwise, with insufficient levels of red blood cells, less oxygen may be delivered to the muscles, which can lead to fatigue and slower muscle tissue recovery.[9] Folate even assists in the production of DNA and RNA, which is not only critical for muscle repair, but also for healthy cells and preventing damage from free radicals.

Studies have indicated that folate deficiency is among the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies worldwide, and it is linked to fatal health outcomes like neural tube defects in newborns.[10] Beans are high in folate, and incorporating them into your diet regularly can help lessen your risk for deficiency—a critical consideration, particularly for women of child-bearing age. To learn more about how to determine your folate levels and whether they're adequate, check out InsideTracker’s blood testing plans here.

Health effects of beans

Which beans are the healthiest?

The great thing about beans is that there’s seemingly and endless variety from which to choose. However, for those looking to get the most bang for their nutritional buck in adding beans to their diet, there are some that are better than others. According to healthline, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lentils, peas, kidney beans, and black beans rank as the top five healthiest beans. These varieties tend to be the highest in fiber, folate and protein, and are the most effective at mitigating post-meal blood sugar spikes. That being said, all varieties of beans have nutritional benefits, and whichever type you like the best is a great, healthful option to include in your diet.

 

A summary of beans' effects on your health:

  • Beans are high in antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and immune-boosting effects
  • The fiber in beans help to mitigate blood sugar spikes and keep you fuller longer, which can help with weight loss and preventing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
  • The fiber in beans is also heart healthy and helps to promote the healthy bacteria in the gut that ward off invader germs
  • Folate in beans can help reduce fatigue, muscle soreness, and oxidative damage 
  • The folate in beans can also help prevent neural tube defects in infants

 

Ideas for incorporating beans into your diet:

  • Try black beans or lentils mixed with seasoning as a base for tacos 
  • Sub out ground beef for your favorite bean variety when you make a batch of chilli
  • Veggie burgers made with beans are a great and flavorful option next time you’re grilling
  • Add beans to a salad as a filling protein source
  • Aim to incorporate beans into your diet multiple times a week in conjunction with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet in order to reap benefits and feel your absolute best!

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References

 

[1] https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/science/article/pii/S096399691400773X
[2] Xu, S.K.C. Chang. Reduction of antiproliferative capacities, cell-based antioxidant capacities and phytochemical contents of common beans and soybeans upon thermal processing. Food Chemistry, 129 (2011), pp. 974-981
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3435910/
[4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15327914NC441_8?casa_token=4cZYRgSI2TAAAAAA%3AFg5XIDTPCb2UX7Rw8hDfd8v9lU_ZF1RGboaImt71Fw0oAPKZzuupM8okpV11JH-sf07-fzj_WcPPYw&
[5] Ullrich, I. H., & Albrink, M. J. (1985). The effect of dietary fiber and other factors on insulin response: role in obesity. Journal of environmental pathology, toxicology and oncology: official organ of the International Society for Environmental Toxicology and Cancer5(6), 137-155.
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133084/
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705355/