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Beans have something else that meat lacks, Blatner says: phytochemicals, compounds found only in plants (phyto is Greek for "plant"). Beans are high in antioxidants, a class of phytochemicals that incapacitate cell-damaging free radicals in the body, says Brick. (Free radicals have been implicated in everything from cancer and aging to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.)

In a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, researchers measured the antioxidant capacities of more than 100 common foods. Three types of beans made the top four: small red beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans. And three others -- black beans, navy beans, and black-eyed peas -- achieved top-40 status.

The bottom line? Beans are pretty much the perfect food, Brick says.

A Flavor-Packed Bean Recipe

Tuscan Vegetable Soup

Makes 12 small bowls of soup (or 6 large bowls)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (about 1 large)

1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

3 teaspoons minced garlic

4 cups coarsely chopped green cabbage

14.5-ounce can Italian-style stewed tomatoes

2 cups sliced celery

2 cups diced (1/2-inch pieces) carrots or baby carrots

8 cups low-sodium chicken broth (vegetable broth can be substituted)

3 cups diced (1/2-inch pieces) potato

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

3 cups zucchini, sliced into half-moons (cut zucchini in half, then cut into slices)

15-ounce can red kidney beans (white kidney beans can be substituted), rinsed and drained

Garnish: Shredded Parmesan cheese (about a tablespoon per serving)

1. Heat olive oil in large, nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, thyme, and garlic and sauté about 3-5 minutes.
2. Stir in the cabbage, the canned, stewed tomatoes (including liquid), celery, and carrots, and sauté 8-10 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, potatoes, fresh basil, zucchini, and kidney beans and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover saucepan, and let simmer about an hour.
3. Spoon into soup bowls and top each serving with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

Nutritional Information:
Per serving without Parmesan cheese (if 12 per recipe): 138 calories, 7 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat (0.9 g saturated fat), 3 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 113 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 17%.

Per serving with Parmesan cheese (if 12 per recipe): 168 calories, 10 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat (2.4 g saturated fat), 11 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 241 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%.

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