Whether your diet is built completely around plant foods or you’re just moving toward more plant-based eating, beans deserve a front-and-center role in your menus.
These foods—chickpeas, lentils, black eyed peas, limas, and hundreds of others—have been an important part of healthy diets for as long as people have been growing their own food. As populations adopt more meat-centric western-style diets, however, bean consumption has been on the decline.
It’s too bad, because replacing animal foods in the diet with beans has all kinds of benefits. For starters, they are the only protein-rich foods that also offer a big dose of fiber. It makes them one of the best choices for boosting the satiety of a meal since both the protein and fiber help you feel full for longer. And while eating animal foods can raise blood cholesterol, the type of fiber in beans helps to lower it.
Beans are much higher in potassium than meat, fish and chicken, and in fact, are higher in this mineral than many other plant foods. Their combination of protein and potassium makes them a powerful food for protecting bones. Some, like black and navy beans, even offer a little bit of bone-building calcium.
Beans are also high in a type of starch—resistant starch—that resists digestion in the small intestine. As a result, they release glucose to the blood more slowly and gradually, helping to maintain healthier levels of blood glucose and insulin after a meal.
All of this adds up to make the humble bean a formidable foe against chronic disease. Studies show that people who eat more beans have a lower risk for developing diabetes. In those who have this disease, they can help with blood sugar control. People who eat more beans also have a lower risk for heart disease.
Simply adding more bean dishes to your existing diet can actually improve your health according to some research. But you can expect an even greater benefit when bean dishes replace either animal foods or refined grains in your meals.
Aside from these health benefits, beans are a great way to save on your grocery bill without sacrificing nutrition. Along with nuts and seeds, they have the best nutritional value of all foods per dollar spent.
How to Cook Beans for Less Gas and More Flavor
So why don’t people eat more beans? The biggest reason is that, for some people, they can cause gas. These foods contain a type of sugar that travels undigested through the intestines leading to gas production in the colon. It’s easy enough to get rid of those sugars, though, by soaking them in water:
- Let them sit overnight in the refrigerator in enough water to cover plus two inches.
- Discard the water, rinse, and cook in fresh water.
This simple age-old method can reduce the gas-producing sugars by as much as 75 percent. Add a pinch of baking soda to reduce the sugars even more.
But if beans don’t give you gas, then you might want to skip the soaking. The sugars in beans feed good intestinal bacteria that reduce risk for colon cancer.
Although they sometimes suffer from a humdrum culinary image, they are truly anything but boring. Their use in cultural dishes means that they are a part of the best culinary traditions in the world. And you don’t have to be an experienced cook to create healthy and delicious dishes using beans.
Recipe Ideas from Vegan for Life
The following ideas come from my book Vegan for Life, and they are all fast, easy ways to create tasty bean dishes with global panache. You can use canned or cooked beans for any of these.
- Mexican-style: Add one cup of spicy salsa and 1 cup of cooked or frozen corn kernels to three cups of cooked black beans. Heat and serve over rice or wrapped in a warm tortilla with cubed tomatoes and avocado.
- Mediterranean-style: Sauté ½ cup of chopped onion and two garlic cloves, minced, in 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in 3 cups of navy or cannellini beans, 1 cup of chopped tomatoes, 1 ½ tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and fresh or dried parsley to taste. Give the beans even more pizzazz with sliced olives or chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Serve over pasta or rice.
- Barbecued: Stir 1 cup of prepared or homemade barbecue or Sloppy Joe sauce into 3 cups of white beans, heat and serve over whole wheat rolls.
- Home-style with sausage: Add 1 diced apple, ½ cup chopped onion sautéed in two teaspoons olive oil and 4 ounces of vegan sausage, crumbled, to 3 cups of beans. Simmer until apples are tender. Serve over quinoa.
Image Credit: Bean Heart photo via Shutterstock