A primer on bean nutrition
Beans are arguably the most important food staple in the world. Our ancestors relied on them for thousands of years, not only for protein, fiber, and nutrients, but as part of healthy crop rotations that support rich, productive soils. As a bonus, Mother Nature made them extremely delicious– it’s no wonder virtually every country has a celebrated bean dish. With our kitchens in heavy use, and new cooking ambitions brought about by the new year, we thought we'd shed light on the many benefits of regular bean eating.
The original plant-based protein
Beans pack in an average of 14-16 grams of protein per 1 cup of cooked beans (varies by bean). That’s as much as ¾ cup Greek yogurt, 2 eggs, 4 tbsp peanut butter, or 2 oz ground turkey. With growing interest in plant-based meat alternatives, it’s important not to overlook the original plant-based protein, which also offers loads of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plant-based meat alternatives have been designed to mimic what people love about meat, but with that comes saturated fat and excess sodium.
If you’re vegetarian or an occasional meat eater, beans can be an especially important source of not only protein but also iron and zinc. They’re also a great source of B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. What's more, brightly colored beans (like Negro or Ayocote Morado) contain impressive levels of antioxidants in their outer coats (at levels similar to some fruits and vegetables!). We don’t need to tell you twice to eat your beans.
Critical for closing the fiber gap
The new 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports that more than
90% of women and 97% of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber (known as the “fiber gap”). The number one culprit? Not enough plants: beans and other legumes, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. As the structural backbone of plants, fiber is key to a healthy gut and reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. That’s because the different types of fiber (both soluble and insoluble) work their magic by escorting food along the digestive tract, lowering the amount of cholesterol, sugar, and toxins that get released into the bloodstream. A fiber-rich diet keeps you feeling fuller for longer and adds bulk to your stool for easy passage. The USDA recommends eating 28 grams of fiber daily per 2,000 calories. Packing in an average of 16 grams (varies by bean) in just 1 cup of cooked beans, they're a no-brainer for getting more fiber in your diet.
Healthy gut, healthy everything
Only recently have scientists begun to understand the role of fiber in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria living in your intestines – and how a healthy microbiome contributes to overall health. Humans don’t actually digest fiber, but our microbiome uses it as fuel. Bacteria break down fiber into chemicals, which have been shown to reduce inflammation. Bacteria keep the mucus barrier in your gut healthy and intact, which plays an important role in keeping pathogens out of the body. New research points to that fact that an individual's microbiome may have a strong influence on overall health, including reduced risk of inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, heart disease, and colorectal cancer.
We’d also like to get something out of the way: Beans have a bad rap for their gassy side-effect and yes, it’s a type of fiber that contributes to it. If you’re not used to eating high amounts of fiber, try adding beans gradually into your diet to give your microbiome a chance to get used to their new food source (a study actually shows this), and watch your natural biology get to work!
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