More than just a meat substitute, beans are so nutritious that the latest dietary guidelines recommend we triple our current intake from 1 to 3 cups per week. What makes beans so good for us? Here's what the experts have to say:
Chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease all have something in common. Being overweight increases your chances of developing them and makes your prognosis worse if you do, says Mark Brick, PhD -- which means that trimming your waistline does more for you than make your pants look better. Brick, a professor in the department of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University, is investigating the ability of different bean varieties to prevent cancer and diabetes.
Beans are comparable to meat when it comes to calories, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute in Chicago and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. But they really shine in terms of fiber and water content, two ingredients that make you feel fuller, faster. Adding beans to your diet helps cut calories without feeling deprived.
Our diets tend to be seriously skimpy when it comes to fiber (the average American consumes just 15 grams daily), to the detriment of both our hearts and our waistlines. One cup of cooked beans (or two-thirds of a can) provides about 12 grams of fiber -- nearly half the recommended daily dose of 21 to 25 grams per day for adult women (30 to 38 grams for adult men). Meat, on the other hand, contains no fiber at all.
This difference in fiber content means that meat is digested fairly quickly, Brick says, whereas beans are digested slowly, keeping you satisfied longer. Plus, beans are low in sugar, which prevents insulin in the bloodstream from spiking and causing hunger. When you substitute beans for meat in your diet, you get the added bonus of a decrease in saturated fat, says Blatner.
Still not convinced? In a recent study, bean eaters weighed, on average, 7 pounds less and had slimmer waists than their bean-avoiding counterparts -- yet they consumed 199 calories more per day if they were adults and an incredible 335 calories more if they were teenagers.
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 sautÃ© about 3-5 minutes.
2. Stir in the cabbage, the canned, stewed tomatoes (including liquid), celery, and carrots, and sautÃ© 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.
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%.
Published March 1, 2007