Beans might not be the first thing on your list when you think of healthy foods. But these underrated legumes are an excellent source of nutrition and offer many different health benefits.
Beans are a key part of many healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet and the low-glycemic diet, but they are often forgotten in the common Western diet. People tend to be eating fewer and fewer beans these days and aren't taking advantage of this incredible health food.[1-3]
Read on to learn all about the health benefits of beans and how to make beans a more prominent part of your diet to support your health.
Beans – a good source of important nutrients
Beans are an excellent source of nutrients that promote health and support your body in functioning at its best.
Here are some of the highlights of the nutritional benefits of beans:
High in protein. Beans are an important source of protein. One serving can give you about 8 g of protein. While beans are high in protein like meat also is, they don't contain the saturated fats that meat does. This makes beans an excellent protein substitute for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.[1,4]
High in fiber. Beans are especially high in fiber compared to other foods. Just one cup of cooked black beans can give you 15 g of fiber – half the recommended daily amount. Fiber is important for healthy bowel movements, regulating blood sugar, and controlling cholesterol.[4,5]
High in vitamins and minerals. Beans are rich in healthful nutrients like potassium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, copper, B vitamins, magnesium, and folate. In just a half cup of cooked beans, you can get as much as 45% of your daily folate, 26% of your daily manganese, and 15% of your daily magnesium.[1,5,6]
High in other healthy nutrients. Beans also contain nutrients like polyphenols, which serve as antioxidants in the body and can prevent damage to your cells.
Low in fat, particularly saturated fat. Beans can help you limit your saturated fat intake. You get the protein you need without excess fat, and without any cholesterol at all.
As you can see, beans are a unique protein food source because they are naturally low in fat but are also high in fiber and other important nutrients at the same time. One serving (about one-half cup) of beans contains an average of 20 g carbohydrate 8 g of protein, 7-9 g of fiber, and only 1 g of fat.
Although beans do contain carbohydrates, the high levels of both fiber and resistant starch make it so that the body digests and uses the carbohydrates very slowly. Beans have a low glycemic index (between 10 and 40), meaning they won't spike your blood sugar like refined carbohydrates do.[1,2,4]
Top health benefits of beans
Eating beans can boost your health in several different ways, supporting your body and helping you to reduce the risk of common diseases.
Here are some of the top benefits of beans:
1. Keep your blood sugar low
Clinical studies have repeatedly shown us that when people replace other carbohydrate-rich foods in their diets with beans, their blood glucose levels go down. This is true for both people with diabetes and people without diabetes.[2,6,7] This is likely due to the low glycemic index, high fiber content, and antioxidant qualities of beans. As a result, people who eat beans are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
This is important, because if you have signs of high blood sugars, have been diagnosed with prediabetes, and need to keep your blood sugar levels in check, then beans can be a very healthy food to turn to. Try substituting beans for refined carbs in your diet. This simple change could help you to reduce your risk of diabetes!
2. Aid in weight loss efforts
Beans are a great weight loss food. Beans contain fiber and other carbohydrates that are digested slowly in the body. This helps you to feel full longer and can curb your appetite.
In fact, people who eat beans regularly tend to weigh less and lose more weight than people who don't eat beans.[1,8]
3. Reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors
Due to their unique nutrient content, beans can help you to lower cholesterol, keep blood pressure regulated, and more. All of these positive effects can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.[3,6,7]
4. Give you steady energy
As I've mentioned, the carbohydrates in beans are digested very slowly in the body. This means that beans are able to provide you with a slow, steady source of energy to fuel your brain and body throughout the day.
5. Fight disease and promote overall health
Beans are chock full of all sorts of different nutrients, including antioxidants. Antioxidants are important because they help to keep your cells healthy, prevent damage, and fight off disease.
Consuming beans can help to decrease the risk of things like heart disease and even certain types of cancer, like prostate cancer.[3,6]
The downsides of consuming beans
There are many reasons to include more beans in your diet, from keeping blood sugars controlled to reducing heart disease risk. But some people are wary of beans for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, beans are often associated with gas. They contain certain carbohydrates that can't be digested by your body and that are instead digested by bacteria in your intestines. Those bacteria produce gas when they break down the carbohydrates, which can make some people uncomfortable.
Beans also contain some compounds that are considered "anti-nutrients." These are compounds that can interfere with the digestion and utilization of other nutrients.[2,9]
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the side effects of beans. Soaking, germinating, and cooking at high temperatures can help. It's also important to add in beans slowly to your diet if you haven't been eating them so your body can adjust.[2,4-6,9]
What are the healthiest types of beans?
You might be wondering if certain beans are healthier than others. Should you be ordering black beans or pinto beans at restaurants, for example?
The truth is that each variety of bean has unique benefits, and it is really quite impossible to rank one type of bean over another in terms of which one provides the greatest nutrition. All beans provide plenty of health benefits, and all of them have valuable nutrients.
For example, while black beans are pretty high in protein, lima beans are particularly high in potassium. Navy beans win as far as calcium and fiber, but garbanzos have an edge when it comes to iron levels.
Some great bean varieties to experiment with include black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and navy beans.
Adding more beans to your diet
Experts recommend that you eat anywhere from 11/2 to 3 cups of beans per week. Fortunately, there are endless ways to incorporate beans into your weekly meals. They are incredibly versatile and can make some very tasty dishes.
Here are some ideas to try:
Make homemade hummus by pureeing different types of beans. From classic garbanzo bean hummus to zesty alternatives like jalapeno black bean hummus, it's easy to get creative with flavors and add-ins.
Add beans to fresh salads to make them more filling and satisfying.
Mix beans into your soups. Try making chili, Tuscan vegetable soup, or black bean soup, for example.
Make a "three bean salad" with your favorite bean varieties and a simple vinegar dressing.
Sautee beans with greens and other veggies in a fry pan to make a warming dish.
Ditch the can and cook your own beans from scratch. Dried beans are super easy to cook yourself. Simply rinse them in water, soak them for several hours (or overnight), drain, add fresh water, and then cook according to the directions on the package.
If you want to promote your overall health and decrease your risk of developing conditions like diabetes or heart disease, stock up on both canned and dried beans and work them into your regular meal rotation.
Polak R, Phillips EM, Campbell A. Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake. Clin Diabetes. 2015;33(4):198-205.
Messina V. Nutritional and health benefits of dried beans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100 Suppl 1:437S-42S.
Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Augustin LS, et al. Effect of legumes as part of a low glycemic index diet on glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(21):1653-60.
Kim SJ, de Souza RJ, Choo VL, et al. Effects of dietary pulse consumption on body weight: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(5):1213-23.
Samtiya M, Aluko RE, Dhewa T. Plant food anti-nutritional factors and their reduction strategies: an overview. Food Production, Procession, and Nutrition. 2020;2(6).
Lark helps you eat better, move more, stress less, and improve your overall wellness. Lark’s digital coach is available 24/7 on your smartphone to give you personalized tips, recommendations, and motivation to lose weight and prevent chronic conditions like diabetes.