The Health Benefits of Beans

I know I keep referring back to those sayings from our grandparents, but the science of today continues to support some of the old wives tales of yesterday. From the health benefits of eating an apple a day, to the benefits of drinking water to, yes, the fact that beans are indeed good for your heart!

So, for starters, what are beans? They belong to a group of foods called legumes, which are plants whose seeds grow within a pod. Before we get to the health benefits of legumes, there are other factors that make them a desirable part of a healthy diet. They are abundant in both dried and canned varieties, they are inexpensive, they are versatile because they take on the flavors of what they are cooked with, and, in addition to being low fat and high in fiber, they are a good source of protein. 

The American Heart Association and the World Health Organization agree that the healthiest diet is a plant-based diet that includes beans. One study analyzing food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary artery disease in seven countries found that higher legume consumption was associated with an 82 percent reduction in heart attack risk.

Why are beans and legumes so good for your heart?

  • They help lower total and LDL cholesterol levels (the bad cholesterol) due to the binding of cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • They may reduce blood pressure by making the blood vessels more elastic. A national health and nutrition study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed people who routinely included beans in their diet had lower blood pressure levels.
  • Heart disease has been linked to chronic inflammation. This inflammation is believed to cause damage to the blood vessels surrounding the heart. Beans are a good source of “phytochemicals,” which are naturally occuring chemical compounds found in plants that provide anti-oxidant properties and reduce inflammation in the body.
  • Beans are a rich source of vitamins and minerals such as niacin, magnesium, zinc and potassium. One B vitamin in particular, folate, decreases levels of the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine in the blood has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. By decreasing levels of homocysteine, folate can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

To reap the benefits of beans, keep a few things in mind. Beans should be included as part of a low fat recipe and diet. Adding saturated fats like pork fat or lard diminishes the health benefits. It is suggested that as little as 1/3 to 1/2 cup of beans/ legumes per day can provide significant health benefits. And, lastly, to minimize the potentially uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects of introducing large amounts of fiber into your diet, take it slow and work your way up.

You can add beans to your daily diet by adding them to your salads, soups, stews and chilis. Include them in pasta dishes and have hummus as a snack. The possibilities are endless!

Registered dietitian Barb Walsh is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.

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