What do we know about the health benefits of beans? As a kid growing up with six other siblings and because money was tight, there would always be plenty of vegetables and legumes to eat at supper time. We rarely had much in the way of meat, chicken or fish, and what was there would be small portions. So I pretty much grew up on a plant-based diet.
Apart from a lot of mashed potato, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots and cauliflower, there was plenty of beans going around. We'd have Lima beans, broad beans, butter beans and green string beans. After leaving home, I became a fully-fledged vegetarian.
Though beans and vegetables filled our bellies, looking back, you could say that these leguminous plants were considered culinary outcasts. Nobody understood much about these little legumes back then, and there was little in the way of research. But today they are everywhere and often used in soups, stews and salads.
While I don't cook many beans myself, I do like to pop down to the local deli or salad bars to get my fill of legumes. You could say that these particular plant pulses are little chemical factories with lots of biologically active substances in them. And there's good evidence that by eating them you may well be protected against cancer.
The healing benefits of beans can help lower your cholesterol, stabilise your blood sugar levels and help with diabetes, they can help reduce your risk of heart disease as well as reduce your risk of breast and prostate cancers. Beans are the ultimate power food because they are low in fat and high in protein and fibre as well as they contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Not bad for the small but mighty bean.
And because beans come packed with soluble fibre, the very same gummy stuff found in other foods like apples, barley and oat bran, they can also help cholesterol. Beans are certainly one of the best when lowering cholesterol levels. In your digestive tract, soluble fibres trap cholesterol-containing bile, removing it from your body before it's absorbed.
So with that in mind, eating a cup of cooked beans a day can lower your total cholesterol by as much as 10 per cent in six weeks. And while 10 per cent may not seem much, you have to keep in mind that every 1 per cent reduction in total cholesterol means a 2 per cent decrease in your risk for heart disease. Beans can lower cholesterol in just about anyone but the higher your cholesterol, the better they work.
It would also appear that all legumes can help lower cholesterol levels, even the canned baked beans. Beans also play another less direct role in keeping your cholesterol levels down. They are incredibly satisfying, so when you eat plant pulses, you'll have less appetite for other fattier foods. And eating less fat is critical for keeping cholesterol levels low. All leguminous plants are high in fibre, and fibre-rich food automatically makes you feel fuller.
As you probably know, keeping your blood sugar levels steady is the key to preventing diabetes at bay. You may or may not know just how excellent the benefits of beans are for people with diabetes. Eating between 1/2 and 1/4 cup of beans a day can show significant improvement in blood sugar control. Beans are super-rich in complex carbohydrates.
And unlike sugary foods which dump sugar (glucose) into your bloodstream all at once, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly. It means that the glucose enters your bloodstream a little at a time, helping to keep blood sugar levels nice and steady.
Also, beans are high in soluble fibre, and a diet high in soluble fibre causes your body to produce more insulin receptor sites - tiny docks whereby insulin molecules can latch on. More insulin gets into individual calls where it's needed most, and less is present in your bloodstream where can cause problems.
I hate to have to say this, but people with diabetes are four to six times more likely to develop heart disease, so it might make sense to eat more beans. Besides, eating more beans will help keep your cholesterol low, thereby reducing any risk.
Because beans are low in fat and rich in fibre, they are some of the best cancer-fighting foods. And the reason for this is that beans contain compounds such as lignans, isoflavones, saponins, phytic acid and protease inhibitors that are known to inhibit cancer cell growth. These compounds, while they might appear strange in names, keep your healthy cells from turning cancerous and in doing so, prevent cancer from growing.
They are also as protective to a plant as they are to us. What I mean by this is that beans are natural insect repellents. They're ways in which plants protect themselves from insects and other predators. If you can imagine legumes being able to block the growth and invasion of insects, mould and bacteria, you can only guess what they might also be able to do the same with cancer cells.
Soybeans, (unlike other legumes) are also rich in genistein and daidzein, two chemical compounds that may play a role in preventing cancer. Known as phytoestrogens, these are weaker versions of the estrogen that we produce naturally. Some experts believe that these compounds may help to reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer by blocking the activity of testosterone and estrogen, male and female sex hormones that, over time can spur the growth of cancerous tumours.
If you consider that Hispanic women have about half the risk of getting breast cancer than western women, it's little wonder that beans are eaten almost daily in many Hispanic households. Beans are a significant source of fibre for Hispanic women get nearly 25 per cent of their dietary fibre from beans, twice the national average of westerners.
Beans were once called the poor man's meat, but a more accurate name would be a healthy man's meat. Just like red meat, leguminous plants come packed with protein, something which meat lovers still can't seem to grasp. And unlike meat beans are light in fat, particularly those dangerous artery-clogging saturated fats. To give you an example, a cup of adzuki beans contains less than 1 gram of fat, and less than 1 per cent of that comes from saturated fat.
Beans are also a great source of essential vitamins and minerals. A half-cup of black beans contains 128 micrograms or 23 per cent of the daily value (DV) for folate, a B vitamin that may lower your risk of heart disease. The same cup has 2 milligrams of iron, 11 per cent of the DV and 300 milligrams of potassium or 9 per cent of the DV. Potassium is a mineral that is renowned for helping control blood pressure naturally.
Go for the Fibre. While virtually all dried beans are excellent sources of fibre, some varieties stand out from the pack. Black beans, for example, contain 6 grams of fibre in a half-cup serving. Chickpeas, kidney beans and Lima beans all weight in at about 7 grams of fibre and black-eyed peas are among the best with about 8 grams of fibre.
Enjoy them Canned. If you don't have time to soak and cook dried beans, go for the canned variety. Canned beans are just as good for you as the dried kind. But because canned beans are higher in sodium, you should drain and rinse them thoroughly before using them.
Use Gas-Deflating Herbs and Spices. I'm sure you've all been a little uncomfortable and embarrassed at times when gas got the better of you from reaping the benefits of beans. Try spicing them with a pinch of summer savoury or a teaspoon of ground ginger. These herbs and spices may help reduce the bean's gas-producing effects.
Please take note that the information on this site is designed for educational purposes and is intended solely for a general readership. The contents herein are not intended to offer any personal medical advice or to diagnose any health issues you may have. This information is also by no means a substitute for medical care by a licensed healthcare provider. For that, you'd need to consult your medical doctor or a health care practitioner for any advice should you require prescription medication.