By Laura M. Ali, MS, RDN, LDN
You probably grew up knowing that beans were good for you, but the only way your mom got you to eat them was by putting them in chili! Let’s face it, beans got a bad rap and were often the butt of jokes (pun intended!). But, as usual, mom knew something beyond the joke – there are many benefits of beans. They are a nutritional powerhouse, an inexpensive source of protein, and a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of meals and dishes.
The 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults eat between 1 – ½ and 3 cups of beans, peas, and legumes weekly, and yet less than 20% of Americans currently meet this goal.1 Beans are a great source of plant protein, are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They are a perfect addition to a plant-forward diet.
Types of Beans
So, what are beans? Beans, also called pulses, come from the edible seeds of a plant. They are enclosed inside an outer casing called a pod. They include beans, lentils, and peas. Fresh beans are the seeds that are in the pod and ready to eat, like cannellini beans, peas, and soybeans. Dried beans are the seeds that have dried inside the pod, like kidney beans, lentils, or pinto beans.
Nutrition Facts of Beans
There are many benefits of beans; both fresh and dried beans are full of nutrition. They are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are important for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. And like other vegetables, they are also rich in antioxidants, with the pigment in the skin providing the richest source.
Beans for Protein – Beans and peas are a great source of plant protein. A half-cup of cooked dry beans has between 6g and 9g of protein and is a great alternative to meat-based protein. They can easily be substituted for meat or added to meat in many dishes.
Fiber – Most of the calories in beans come from complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber – both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber pulls water into the GI tract and traps cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol, and pulls it out of the body. Insoluble fiber is the non-digestible part of the plant. It provides bulk which slows the movement of food and waste through the GI tract. This helps keep you feeling full longer and helps to keep blood sugar levels consistent. This insoluble fiber is also known as a prebiotic. It provides food for the healthy bacteria in your GI tract which supports your immune system.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants – Nutrients like folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium are nutrients that many Americans don’t get enough of and are found in abundance in beans. These nutrients are important for helping to support blood pressure, use energy and move oxygen through our body. Like other fruits and vegetables, beans are full of antioxidants that help destroy free radicals that are associated with heart disease, cancer, and aging.
Decreasing Side Effects of Beans
Yes, beans have gotten a bad rap over the years and are known for causing gas and bloating. Beans have a sugar that we can’t break down completely. That sugar is good for us. It gives the bacteria in our intestine something to feed on, but it does increase gas production. A little gas is normal and a sign of healthy digestion but if it is uncomfortable or too much there are things you can try to reduce it.
First, make sure the beans are cooked well. If you are using dry beans, soak them before cooking which will break down some of this starch. Follow that with cooking them completely to break down the sugar as much as possible.
Second, go slow! If you aren’t used to eating beans, gradually add them into your meals and build up to the recommended 1-1/2 to 3 cups weekly.
Third, if you still have issues, try adding an enzyme to help break down the sugar in the beans before you eat them. One of the common forms is called Beano® and is available in most pharmacies.
Cooking with Beans
Beans are an incredibly versatile food. While many of us associate beans with chili or a bean dip, they can be added to almost any part of the meal. Here are some favorite recipes from dietitians across Pennsylvania.
For breakfast, toss beans into scrambled eggs, or try this simple and delicious 4 ingredient Chickpea and Rosemary Fritatta or on top of toast with greens and an egg – just toast a piece of whole grain bread, add some sautéed greens and top with beans and fried egg by Helen Matusky, RDN, LDN.
Bean dips are an easy appetizer to throw together and easy to make but beans can also be an easy snack! For a classic dip for veggies or pita bread, you can’t go wrong with this delicious Chickpea hummus from Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN. And if you want an easy snack, that you can make ahead and nibble on all week these zesty little Lemon Chickpeas from Deanna Seagrave Daly, RD are the perfect solution!
If your family isn’t used to eating beans, the easiest way to introduce them is by adding them to meals they are already familiar with. A hearty chili is a perfect place to start. Try adding to a southwestern style meal like this easy Mexican Lasagna from Melissa Altman – Traub, RD which takes less than an hour to pull together!
Beans are an easy addition to soups, stews, and side dishes. Give this Tuscan Turkey Bean and Butternut Squash soup from Heather Mangieri or my Italian Sausage and Bean Soup or classic Italian dish of Beans and Greens a try!
For a quick hearty dinner this Creamy Beany Broccoli Soup from Leslie Bonci, MS, RDN at Active Eating Advice, will be a sure winner!
Creamy, Beany Broccoli Carrot Soup
- 1 TBSP olive oil
- 1 pound broccoli, cut into small pieces
- ½ pound carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups of chicken broth.
- 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt-2%
- ½ cup shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
- 1 (15 ounce) can of cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- Dash of nutmeg
Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until golden. Add broccoli, carrots, and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until broccoli and carrots are tender.
Puree the cannellini beans in a blender. Add the broccoli-broth mixture, Greek yogurt, shredded Cheddar, spices and puree until smooth.
YIELD: 4 servings
Nutrition facts per serving
- Calories: 338
- Carbohydrate: 37 grans
- Fiber: 10.2 grams
- Fat: 14.5 grams
- Protein: 21.5 grams
Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN is a food-focused Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and experienced food and nutrition writer with over 30 years of experience. She is passionate about helping people discover ways to incorporate nourishing food into their lives. She loves learning about the history of food and sharing how it has shaped our culture. On weekends she can be found exploring local food shops, wineries, and walking trails with her husband or coming up with a new culinary delight in her kitchen. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LauraAli_RD and find delicious recipes and tips on her website www.lauramali.com
1 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.