The Brilliant Bean

What is the ONE food that if you eat one cup a day may add up to 3-4 years to your life?

When I asked this question in my lecture on aging, longevity and plant-based diets at the Roizen conference in Las Vegas last year, a LOT of people said “kale” or “green leafy vegetables.”

But the true nutrition powerhouse is the often forgotten BEAN – uniting both protein and fiber into one powerful package. 

Yesterday was National Bean Day, a holiday celebrated every January 6th, to educate the public about beans and their amazing benefits.

Whether red, kidney, lentil or chickpea, this day recognizes one of the oldest cultivated plants, which has been harvested as a valuable protein source since the early 7th century B.C.

Let’s take a moment to learn more about the brilliant bean…

Defining the Humble Bean

To start at the beginning, it’s perhaps worthwhile to clarify some definitions.  You may have heard Jan_07_Beans_Illustrate9_000015324190various beans alternately being referred to as ‘legumes’ or ‘pulses’.

So what is the difference exactly?

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, all beans are classified as legumes” — any simple fruit that opens along a seam on both sides.

Pulses are a ‘subset’ of the legume family.  The term ‘pulse’ refers to the dried seed only.  Common examples of legumes include green beans, fresh peas, soybeans and peanuts while lentils and chickpeas are well-known examples of ‘pulses’.

But whether they are classified as a legume or a pulse, here are a few powerful reasons to eat more of them…

Beans Are a Nutritional Powerhouse

The U.S. federal government recommends one-half cup of beans per day – and for good reason. Beans are:

  • Excellent sources of fiber and protein.
  • High in iron, vitamin B1, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and copper.
  • Naturally low in sodium.Dry beans

Legumes also boast a low glycemic index and produce an amazing “second-meal effect.” Eating a meal containing lentils or chickpeas will keep your blood sugar level stable for about 4-6 hours.  Even better, while beans are in your system, they ‘even out’ the effect of high glycemic foods like bread or rice.

But be careful of the cans…

Nutrition wise, there is not much difference between boiled, sprouted and canned beans – until we look at sodium levels.

The sodium in canned beans can be 100 times greater than that of beans we boil ourselves. Draining and rinsing canned beans gets rid of half that sodium BUT also removes some of the nutrients.  To avoid that problem, cook your own beans or make sure to buy beans without added salt and keep the nutrient-rich bean juice called “aquafaba” (one of the most versatile egg replacers available).

Beans Increase Longevity

Study after study have shown that beans are linked to increased longevity.  In a recent study conducted in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, scientists saw an 8% reduction in death risk for every 20-gram increase in daily legume intake.

Conversely, diets devoid of beans appear to decrease lifespan. For example, a recent Taiwanese study points to the fact that a bean-free diet could be a significant mortality predictor in women.

Beans Decrease the Risk of Diabetes

Beans can play a very important role in helping reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.Top View of Soaked Sprouting ChickPeas

In fact, regular bean consumption can be as effective as portion control in reducing prediabetes risk factors — by promoting a slimmer waistline and improved blood glucose control.

In a 8-week study, people asked to add five cups a week of pulses – i.e. beans, lentils and chickpeas, without any other changes in their diet, showed similar or greater reduced risk factors of metabolic syndrome than people asked to cut 500 calories from their daily diet.

Equally, substituting one serving of low glycemic beans for one serving of high glycemic white rice can lower risk of metabolic syndrome by as much as 35%.

Beans Improve Heart Health

But beans’ positive health benefits don’t stop at diabetes; they can also improve cardiovascular health.

For example, people who don’t eat beans as part of their daily diet may be four times as likely to suffer from high blood pressure.

Cholesterol levels may also be cut sharply simply by adding two servings a day of lentils, chickpeas, beans or split peas to the diet.

What About Flatulence?

Many people are afraid to include legumes in their diet because of…yes…the dreaded flatulence.Beans_iStock_000020053230_Medium

Long dubbed “the musical fruit”, concerns about excessive beany flatulence might be greatly exaggerated. Gas buildup is a natural by-product of the healthful fermentation process, but the effect is usually short-lived.

If you are not a bean-eater, your natural gut flora will have to adjust to an increase in dietary legumes, but after about a week, the “undesirable” emissions will diminish.

While you’re adding more healthful legumes to your diet, keep in mind that lentils, split peas and canned beans usually produce less gas. Thoroughly soaking raw beans before cooking helps, too.

In conclusion, beans are really good for you at so many levels.  Which is why we should all honor National Bean Day every single day of the year.

Maybe it’s time to cook up a fabulous vegetarian bean chili, bean-based salad or casserole or add some beans to your garden this spring?