bowl of beans

The Health Benefits of Beans

By Maggie Nichols, Thursday Review contributor

Beans are great food. But first, let’s acknowledge that 500 pound gorilla in the room. Let’s clear the air, so to speak.

Beans are high in fiber. So high in fiber, that they can cause gas which can range from mild to serious—at least for most people. And that can, at times, include me. So I eat beans, but, it’s a matter of timing. My sister, a vegetarian, can eat legumes with impunity (or so she says), but my brother, now 30 and married, must for the sake of family happiness avoid them almost entirely. As kids we used to joke that he needed to avoid open flames after a meal of red beans and rice.

Okay, having ventilated that issue, we move along.

To doctors and diet specialists, beans are a no-brainer. Stock in beans has been on the rise in the medical journals lately, so much so that within the last two years many dietary guidelines have been updated to reflect the recommendation that we all eat more beans—as many as three cups per week spread out across four to five meals. Why? Because beans have a direct impact on both weight (as in more beans equals weight loss!) and one’s risk for cancer—especially internal cancers.

First, let’s look at the weight factor. How can a diet rich in beans help you lose weight? Because beans have a tendency to digest much more slowly and thoroughly than other foods, and this means that after a meal which includes at least one serving of beans, you simply feel fuller for a longer period of time. Beans also contain water, another factor that helps you feel full. It’s the reason that a medium sized dinner of black beans and rice helps you go longer between that meal and the next one—you just won’t get hungry as quickly. Beans are a wonderful way to add calories and protein without feeling like you are on “a diet,” so to speak.

Secondly, beans—like other vegetables we have reviewed in the pages of Thursday Review—are the right thing to eat if you want to lower your risk of stomach and colon cancer. Why? Because beans are loaded with fiber. After split peas and lentils, black beans, lima beans and pinto beans are the highest in fiber of all the foods in the legume family (which includes also nuts and seeds). Amazingly, beans contain more fiber per serving than bran flakes, bran muffins, whole-wheat and multigrain breads, and even brown rice. And according to the Mayo Clinic, beans beat even broccoli and Brussels sprouts for fiber content.

Bottom line: most doctors recommend that men should eat between 30 to 38 grams of fiber per day, and that women get between 21 to 25 grams of fiber, according to an article on WebMD. So that means that beans are an ingenious way to get lots of fiber and lose weight in the process—not a bad combination for many Americans.

Beans also contain something called phytochemicals, compounds which attack and disable free radicals, and free radicals contribute to both cancer risk and tissue aging. They are also suspected as a high risk factor for Parkinson’s disease. In short, beans have the ability to lower your cancer risk in at least two ways—by adding fiber, and by shielding you from some of the effects of free radicals.

Beans can be easily added to your diet in a variety of ways, such as tossed in with a green salad (about ¼ cup of kidney beans), added or cooked in soup, or eaten as a snack with nachos. And something fun for the family is making bean burritos at home, using a simple recipe for refried beans or black beans.

Finally, as my vegetarian sister constantly reminds me (and anyone else who will listen), beans are packed with protein, and their rich texture makes them a wonderful substitute for meat in any diet. Since the fastest way to reduce one’s risk of internal cancer is to reduce or eliminate meats, that means that beans in all their varieties and types are a great way to get your protein, eat healthier, and get all that fiber that you might miss eating that burger and those French fries.

Now, go on with your bean jokes. Everyone has at least one.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Tasty Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sept. 17, 2013.

The Brussels Sprouts Controversy; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; February 10, 2013.