Recipe for health: cheap, nutritious beans


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

I’ve been thinking about beans this week for a few reasons. One is an upcoming trip with my family to Nicaragua, where we will probably eat beans three times a day. Another is a paper in this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine showing that adding more beans to the diet can help people with diabetes better control their blood sugar.

Beans, the butt of countless flatulence jokes, are often written off as food for poor people, or cheap substitutes for meat. Given what beans can do for health, they should be seen as food fit for royalty—or at least for anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way.

Legumes at any meal

The beans I’m talking about here are what botanists call legumes. Some people call them “pulses.” There are many types: adzuki beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, broad beans (fava beans), calico beans, cannellini beans, garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, mung beans, navy beans, peanuts, pinto beans, soybeans (also called edamame), and others.

Legumes are a terrific food. They are an excellent source of protein. They are low in fat. They are nutrient dense, meaning they deliver plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other healthful nutrients relative to calories. They provide plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber.

You can eat beans at any meal. Gallopinto (based on black beans and white rice) is a traditional breakfast dish in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Bean burgers or falafel (deep-fried patties made from ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both) make a decent lunch. You can use beans in salads and stews, or build main dishes around them. A few recipes from a new cookbook, Bean by Bean, are available here. Many others are available courtesy of the California Dry Bean Advisory Board.

Beans and health

The article that caught my eye in Archives of Internal Medicine reported the results of a 12-week bean trial. It compared the effects of a diet enriched with legumes (one cup a day) to one enriched with whole wheat foods among people with type 2 diabetes. Both diets lowered blood sugar, though the bean-rich diet did it a little better. Both diets also lowered levels of harmful LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides, the most abundant fat-carrying particle in the bloodstream. They also slightly lowered blood pressure.

These findings are in line with a growing body of evidence on the health benefits of eating beans. They’ve been linked to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and other cancers, as well as improved weight control. Last summer, a special issue of the British Journal of Nutrition was devoted to the various health benefits of legumes.

With all of this going for beans, I was surprised that they were omitted from the cover of this week’s Time magazine illustrating what we “should” be eating. Beans are every bit as colorful as the fruits and vegetables pictured, and definitely deserve a place at the table.

The gas tax?

Many people shun beans because of their gaseous aftereffects. Human digestive enzymes can’t break down the fiber and short chains of sugar molecules known as oligosaccharides in beans. But the billions of bacteria living in the gut can digest them, often creating gas in the process.

Here are some tips from the Harvard Heart Letter to help you turn off the gas:

Soak your beans. Soaking beans can get rid of a good portion of the indigestible oligosaccharides. Soak beans for 12 to 24 hours in a few quarts of water, pour off the soaking water, rinse, add clean water, and cook.

Choose wisely. Some beans seem to create less gas than others. These include adzuki and mung beans, lentils, and black-eyed, pigeon, and split peas. Heavy-duty gas formers include lima, pinto, navy, and whole soy beans.

Start slow. Let your body get used to fiber and oligosaccharides by having a small serving once or twice a week. Then gradually increase your intake, either by taking larger servings or eating beans more frequently.

Put your teeth to work. The more thoroughly you chew beans, the more you expose them to natural oligosaccharide-digesting enzymes in your saliva.

Gas-busters to the rescue. An enzyme called alpha-galactosidase breaks down some gas-producing oligosaccharides. The original product, Beano, has since been joined by others with names like Bean Relief, Bean-zyme, and plain old alpha-galactosidase. Taking a tablet before eating beans can reduce gas production.


  1. Navy news

    Thanks for giving us such kind of valuable information about health. Legumes are often called “the poor people’s meat,” however, they might be better known as the “healthy people’s meat.” Many legumes, especially soybeans, are demonstrating impressive health benefits. Thanks….

  2. Dentist Los Angeles

    I really like this.Anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way.

  3. adam levin

    Yes non-alcoholic red wine can cure high blood pressure really? I have never heard such things?

  4. المسالك البولية وسلس البول

    This article is really good…….Thanx 🙂

  5. rehab

    I would really appreciate a deeper insight on how beans help people with diabetes if you elaborate more on their glycemic index .is there a certain kind of bean that provides more health benefits. thank you


  6. colon cancer

    Thank you for this very nice article. Add to my knowledge of the benefits of nuts for health and how to reduce gas in the body due to the consumption of nuts.

  7. Althea Huber

    Thank you, for the innteresting article, but it is of little use to me. I do not tolerate carbs well. + I have diabetes II.(I MISS lima beans, and all the others.)

    I wish you would write more about the other “type of digestive system.” One type eats fiber to insure a bowel movement; but, I–and many others–eat wheat bran, et al., and are assured of constipation. When I eat fruits and vegetables, cooked or uncooked–I usually can expect normal bowel movements. I am concerned for others–not me.

    Christmas 1958, I was chatting with a family friend, who always spent the night on Christmas Eve.(our kids & Santa)

    I forgot she was a dietition at Occidental College, and past president of the Los Angeles County Dietians’ Asoc.

    I said, “I think I’m pregnant, but I don’t want to go to Dr. Clark, yet, because he always prescribes fiber. (Mrs. Clark Gable’s OB!) I’m embarrassed to tell him it makes me constipated!’Everybody’knows fiber does the opposite!”

    She filled me in with above info. 1958-2012–& All is well!

    Please. I’ve never heard any doctor/et al. mention this!!

  8. Virginia Sparrow

    Thank’s for posting this interesting article. Lot of information I have learned from the use of beans and from the gas tax. Continue posting like this awesome article.

  9. Ricy Mardona

    Thank you for a great weblog submit. I really enjoyed reading it. This website has got some really useful info on it! I was looking for this. It was excellent and very informative. PLEASE keep it up!

  10. Chris

    Interesting article, especially the gas reduction section. Those are interesting ideas I will have to try. Beans are an excellent complex carbohydrates and protein choice for those watching their simple sugar intake.

  11. dogshop dog shop

    This is great! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  12. Roxanne McGahey

    What an interesting article J.P. like many people I read countless articles about legumes. I really like the idea of Gallopinto for breakfast, since our traditional North American breakfast is questionable at best for its nutritional value. As a piano and Music Theory Online teacher I am always looking for inexpensive and healthy alternatives. In our house we have cut down to one serving a week of red meat, however we need to find more alternatives, and your article has given me the push needed to investigate further the wild world of beans.

    Thanks again for a great post. I hope you don’t mind if I pass this on to some friends and colleagues.

  13. Ilmu Kimia

    Beans are full of proteins. Our body need it so much.
    Protein can also support our body to grow well.

    Ilmu Kimia

  14. Oliver

    I’ve heard that red kidney beans are a good source of calcium for people with lactose intolerance (and anyone for that matter). Is this true?

    And since lactose intolerance often goes hand in hand with IBS (at least in my case), should I even consider beans in my case? I have enough problems with gas issues and other digestive disorders, that beans seem like a risky idea.

    And finally, if soy beans are a part of this healthy equation, will I also get the health benefits from drinking soy milk (which I do because of the lactose intolerance), or is that too processed to still be considered a bean?


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