Beans, peas and lentils (known collectively as ‘legumes’) are a severely under-loved nutrition champion, having been condemned for their gassy properties and image as a bland vegetarian food for hippies. I often bring up beans with my patients, not only because most people don’t eat them at all, but also because they are such a universally beneficial food, shown to have benefits for many common chronic health conditions.
If you don’t include beans in your diet, or maybe not enough of them, here are some reasons to change that:
They count towards your vegetable serves
If you struggle to get in at least 5 serves of vegetables daily (1 serve = ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw veg), legumes may be an easy way to reach it. Because they have similar nutrients to vegetables and meats and alternatives, the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating considers them a vegetable or a meats and alternatives food. Just ½ a cup of cooked beans, peas or lentils contributes 1 serve of vegetables to your daily requirement.
They keep you regular
Legumes are packed full of fibre, which most people do not get enough of. Fibre prevents constipation, and being regular is important to prevent haemorrhoids, diverticular disease and colon cancer.
They lower your risk of cancer
As above, the fibre in beans can prevent colon cancer, as well as breast cancer. This has been demonstrated by studies showing that low fibre intake may increase our risk of breast cancer.
They keep your gut bacteria happy
Beans contain a type of carbohydrate called ‘resistant starch’ named so because, like fibre, it resists digestion in our gut (specifically, our large intestine). This starch is a prebiotic that the good bacteria (or flora) in our gut feed on and then produce a substance that makes our gut cells more alkaline than acidic. Having more alkaline guts greatly reduces our risk of colon cancer.
They can lower your cholesterol
Eating beans has been shown to be a very powerful treatment for those with high cholesterol. It can even mean not having to take statin (cholesterol-reducing) medication any more. Beans contain soluble fibre, which lowers cholesterol likely through binding to the bad cholesterol in our bodies and excreting it via our waste, thereby lowering cholesterol and our risk of heart disease.
They may lower your blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a very common condition, which many people (as is the case for those with high cholesterol) take drugs to people eating more beans had lower blood pressure. This is likely due to their high content of magnesium and potassium, minerals which are known to reduce blood pressure.
They help to prevent -and can even reverse- diabetes
The resistant starch in legumes also not only lowers our blood sugar following a meal, but may even make our body cells more likely to take up sugar from the blood (i.e. reduce insulin resistance or increase insulin sensitivity), keeping our blood sugar levels more stable. This is really important for those with type 2 diabetes, as the crux of the problem is that cells cannot take up sugar from the blood, leading to high blood sugar levels.
They will keep you full and satisfied
Legumes are great at filling us up easily as they contain a unique combination of fibre and protein, which both delay hunger. They also have a low GI (Glycaemic index) rating, meaning that the carbohydrates are digested slowly.
They are cheap and convenient
Legumes are easy to prepare, especially if you use canned versions (which are just as healthy as home-cooked, as long as you rinse the salt off before eating!). They’re also very cheap compared to foods with similar nutrients like meats. Have a look at this infographic from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM):
They will help you live longer
Because of all of these health-promoting effects, it’s no surprise that studies have shown those eating more beans are living longer! In fact, one study looking at the diets of those from several populations around the world found that for every 20 gram increase in legume intake per day (about ¼ cup of cooked beans), their risk of death decreased by 8%!
They have so much more potential!
Different types of legumes contain different phytonutrients, compounds in plants that have been shown in studies to have many health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing and bone-protective effects. The reasons above are just the start of what seems like a long list of health benefits from beans. What will they discover next?!
Wanting to eat more beans but not sure how? Or maybe you’re worried about being gassy? Look out for my next blog where I’ll share all of the ways to add beans into your diet and how to avoid the gas!