Beans are a phytonutrient and antioxidant rich food and an excellent addition to a varied, economical, healthy diet (see also here). All four of the major dietary quality scoring systems promote beans as a part of a healthful diet, one of only four components these guidelines agree on. The newest dietary guidelines for Americans also promote whole plant food consumption, including a high legume intake (see here, here, and here). And this with good reason; many of the most health promoting and disease reversing diets ever studied emphasize high bean and legume consumption: the Ornish diet (which reversed the progression of prostate cancer, heart disease and cellular aging); the Mediterranean diet (which decreased heart disease risk and improved sexual function (see also here and here)); the traditional Kenyan, Okinawan and Bantu diets (dramatically lowering heart disease, high blood pressure and bowel disease risk); and the traditional Native American and Indian diets (potentially minimizing cancer and Alzheimer’s risk). A whole-food, plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and beans has been shown to improve Parkinson’s symptoms, decrease the subcutaneous fat associated with cellulite, improve symptoms of gum disease, and decrease weight, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Beans contain a multitude of nutrients that are known to be health promoting:
- They are an excellent source of ergothioneine, which has been shown to protect DNA.
- Beans are a great source of zinc, which is important for male reproductive health.
- This class of foods is rich in potassium, an essential mineral that may be protective against stroke.
- One can obtain significant amounts of folate from beans and legumes, which is important for maintaining healthy homocysteine levels, without any of the side effects associated with folic acid supplementation. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with increased risk of heart disease and the development of Alzeihmer’s disease.
- Beans are a good source of magnesium, which is associated with an overall decreased risk of mortality.
- They are rich in vitamin B6, which is important for eye health.
- They contain a high concentration of non-heme iron, which is a safer form of this essential mineral than the heme-iron found in animal sources.
- They are rich in soluble fiber, which is associated with a plethora of health benefits: decreased breast, colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease risk (see also here), decreased risk of stroke, slowed progression of heart disease, and treatment constipation (see also here).
- Beans contain high levels of phytates which are now believed to promote bone health, decrease the risk of cancer and even force cancer cells to dedifferentiate back towards being normal cells (see also here).
As a whole plant food, beans may help lower body weight (see also here), reduce blood pressure (see also here), reduce inflammation (see also here), decrease the rate of cancer progression and metastasis, stabilize blood sugar levels (see also here and here), decrease circulating insulin levels, decrease risk of metabolic syndrome and pre-diabetes, lower cholesterol (see also here), minimize dioxin and cadmium toxicity, decrease oxidative stress from exercise, prevent the production of the cancer promoting compound TMAO, and improve asthma symptoms. Bean consumption may be protective against the initial development of cancer (see also here), benign prostate hyperplasia, skin aging and wrinkling, depression and suicide. In fact, beans are so health promoting that their consumption is now believed to be the single most important predictor of longevity among older populations around the world (see also here).
But does it matter which kind of beans we eat? Black beans appear to be slightly more antioxidant-rich than pinto beans and lentils (red lentils more than than green ones) come in second after black beans in terms of antioxidant content (see also here, here). Tempeh is a whole soy food and as such is one of the healthiest forma of soy. Tofu, as long as it isn’t made with formaldehyde like it is in Malaysia, is also health-promoting. Consumption of soy products in general has been associated with health benefits, including reducing abdominal fat. However, people consuming large quantities of soy (7-18 servings per day) were found to have elevated IGF-1, a cancer promoting hormone, equivalent to those consuming meat. Three to five servings of soy per day appear to offer the health benefits without elevating IGF-1. Coffee (made from beans! Well seeds, technically…), appears to be protective against diabetes, liver cancer, and brain cancer. Chocolate (actually made from a bean) may have health benefits, when it’s not processed to include large quantities of fat, sugar and dairy,
What about cooked, sprouted and canned beans? It appears there is little difference in nutrient profile between these preparation methods, but some canned beans may contain up to 100x more salt than beans prepared at home. One should also be aware that the plastic linings in bean cans produced by certain companies contain BPA.
Unfortunately, 98% of Americans are not utilizing the full potential of these versatile, cost-effective, environmentally friendly foods (see also here and here). While public health and economic policies need to be altered (see also here) in order to promote the consumption of healthy foods, everyone can take personal responsibility for improving their diets; it’s never too late to accrue health benefits from switching to a healthier diet and lifestyle (see also here).
Topic summary contributed by Miranda.