Let’s talk about Beans! Are they healthy? Are they not? Should you be avoiding them or eating more of them?
The conversation about beans is all over the place in the online space. And depending on what diet plan, book, or blog you’re following you will either be in the camp of “stay away” or “eat more”.
As with most things in nutrition the answer to these questions can be a bit complicated and definitely individual. Let me explain.
First, let’s review what foods count as beans. Beans are part of the “Legume” family. Legumes include beans, lentils, peanuts, and peas. There are a vast variety of beans and like with all foods you will get the most benefit by rotating through different ones.
- Lima Beans
- Black Beans
- Pinto Beans
- Kidney Beans
- Fava Beans
- Garbanzo Beans (aka Chickpeas)
- Navy Beans
- Red Beans
- White Beans
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Soy Beans
- Adzuki Beans
- Mung Beans
Benefits of Beans
First, the good points. Beans are an excellent source of low glycemic carbohydrate, fiber, and plant based protein. So if you’re vegetarian or vegan, beans should definitely be part of your diet. Beans are also a great source of phytonutrients and antioxidants. Beans are rich in folate and other B vitamins along with zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium.
Beans provide food for your good bacteria making them important in gut health. They’ve also been shown to help improve heart health, blood sugar balance, weight management, and reduce the risk for cancer. They’ve even been shown to reduce the risk of dying…from any cause!
Dangers of Beans
Now of course you would like all the above benefits, right? Let’s dive deeper into why you may have heard that you should be avoiding beans.
Phytates are found in beans & other legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. Phytates are an energy source for sprouting seeds and prevent them from sprouting prematurely. In humans phytates can interfere with the body’s absorption of minerals, including zinc, iron, manganese, and, to a small degree, calcium. They can also make proteins, fats, and starches harder to digest.
You can deactivate most of the phytate in beans by soaking them for at least 8-12 hours before cooking. Drain, rinse well, and then cook as usual. On the positive side, phytate does have some health benefits. It’s an antioxidant, and can help bind cadmium, lead, and other heavy metals, preventing their absorption. Foods with high phytate content also seem to reduce the risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancer, and may protect against hardening of the arteries.
Lectins are found in high levels in beans and legumes, grains, nuts, and nightshade vegetables such as eggplant and potatoes. They act as natural pesticides, protecting plants from insects, fungi, and harmful microorganisms. The problem is, lectins can bind to the intestinal wall, making it more permeable and triggering a condition called leaky gut syndrome; which you can learn more about here.
Thoroughly cooking beans dramatically decreases their lectin content and also breaks down some of their complex starch into simple carbs; which then binds with the lectins and help remove them from the body. Fermenting and sprouting beans can also reduce lectins.
Protease inhibitors are found mainly in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. They are compounds that block protease, the body’s protein-digesting enzyme, thus interfering with the body’s absorption of protein. Over time, this causes levels of enzymes, especially one called trypsin, to increase in the intestines, and can also lead to leaky gut. Soy is especially high in these compounds, and the protease inhibitors in soybeans appear to be more resistant to cooking and processing.
Soaking and cooking deactivates the majority of protease inhibitors in most beans. Fermentation has been shown in some studies to completely remove protease inhibitors, especially in soy—so stick with tempeh, miso, and other fermented soy products. On the flip side, some studies suggest that the protease inhibitors in soy may actually contribute to their anticancer effects.
Saponins are found in beans, peanuts, legumes, and some other plant sources. They are thought to damage the membrane lining of cells, especially in the intestines, thus leading to leaky gut. In extremely high quantities, saponins can destroy red blood cells if they enter the bloodstream.
Cooking beans doesn’t reduce the saponin content, but soaking and fermenting does. And, like other so-called “anti-nutrients”, saponins have some health benefits. Studies suggest that they decrease blood lipids, normalize blood glucose response, and reduce the risk of cancer.
FODMAP is an acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. They are specific types of carbohydrate that are poorly absorbed by some people, especially those who have IBS or other digestive problems. Because they’re easily fermented by gut bacteria, they can cause significant bloating, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive symptoms for some people.
While most legumes are high in FODMAPs, chickpeas, lentils, and peas are allowed on most FODMAP diets. Canned beans are lower in FODMAPs than regular beans and, not surprisingly, soaking before cooking can reduce FODMAPs too. When purchasing canned beans make sure you’re buying beans in BPA-free cans and without added salt or other preservatives. Rinse well before using. An even better option would be to buy beans in glass jars if you can find them at your local market.
The Gas Factor
Although technically not a “danger” it can certainly be uncomfortable and a reason why you might be avoiding beans. It is caused from the fiber fermenting in the large intestine during digestion. There are several ways you can help improve digestibility and decrease the production of gas from eating beans.
First is to soak your beans before cooking and to make sure you’re cooking them long enough.
Second is to cook with a strip of kombu; which is a type of seaweed. Kombu contains enzymes that help break down the raffinose sugars in beans, which are the gas-producing culprits. Once they are broken down, you are able to absorb more of the nutrients, and you can enjoy beans without as many intestinal complaints.
Spices can also help you digest beans better. Cooking your beans with a bit of ginger, fennel, or cumin could all help.
Also make sure you’re getting enough hydration during the day. The more fiber you eat, the more fluids you need to keep that fiber moving through your system. And the best part is your body gets better at digesting these fibers the more you are exposed to them. So hang in there.
Bottom Line…Improve Digestibility
From the above factors you can see that mostly the concern with beans comes down to your ability to digest them. Preparing beans properly can go a long way in helping you digest them better. But for some people it would still be advised to avoid beans and other legumes while they’re following a healing protocol; especially those who are working through a digestive repair protocol.
The goal though would be to get to a place where you could tolerate and digest beans and legumes. The health benefits are vast and definitely worth including in your diet.
My Quest For Black Beans
Living most of my life in California has meant easy access to black beans…the staple of Central American cuisine. When we moved to France the quest began. I quickly learned that black beans are not a commonly eaten legume in France. Most people didn’t even know what I was talking about! These poor people, missing out on such a yummy food!
During my first year my sister and friends actually sent me cans and bags of black beans. When I traveled to California I would inevitable pack some black beans to come back home with me. Eventually I found a small organic store…of course far away from me…that sold dry black beans.
I had never cooked black beans from scratch and was honestly super intimidated to try. But eventually my desire to eat black beans was greater than my fear of cooking them and I tackled the elusive homemade black beans. It took me several tries before I finally nailed it. And I have to say…not only was it much easier to make than I thought it would be..it was also so much tastier!
So, if you haven’t yet tried making your own beans I dare you to give it a go. You can start with the yummy black bean recipe that has now become a staple in our house.
Black Beans From Scratch
— adapted from the Minimalist Baker
- 2 cups dried black beans
- 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
- 5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 1 strip kombu (~3 inches)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- water (or broth)
Step 1: Soak overnight by placing beans in a bowl and covering with water.
Step 2: The next day rinse the beans, place in a stockpot or dutch oven, add the onion, garlic, and kombu and cover with about 3 inches of water or broth.
Step 3: Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer, uncover, and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add more water as needed to keep beans slightly covered.
Step 4: Once beans are tender, remove the onion, garlic, and kombu and scoop out any excess liquid.
Step 5: Add the cumin, mix together, increase to medium-high and cook another 10-15 minutes more. Personally I don’t feel like the beans need any additional seasoning but if you’d like to add a bit of sea salt or black pepper when you add the cumin you can.
You can make ahead and then store in the fridge for 5-7 days covered or in the freezer for 1 month.
Making your own beans is definitely worth it! Yes, it does require some advanced planning but if you’re already meal planning or batch cooking then homemade beans can easily fit in to your weekly meal prep. Give them a try and let me know what you think.