Black, pinto, kidney, lima, mung – the bean aisle at the grocery store has something for everyone. There are even beans that don’t sound like beans, like black-eyed peas and no, we’re not talking about the “I Gotta Feeling” group.
America’s favorite bean is pinto beans, according to the U.S. Dry Beans Council, often used to make refried beans. Navy beans, Great Northern beans, red kidney beans and black beans round out the rest of the top five.
But is there one that’s best to consume? Here’s what an expert has to say.
What are the healthiest beans?
It’s hard to go wrong with any kind of bean. Beans are a “nutrition powerhouse,” says registered dietitian Danielle Crumble Smith. They’re packed with fiber, protein, iron and resistant starch, a form of starch that improves gut health because it doesn’t raise glucose. They also contain polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and may protect against some cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative disease.
The best choices for your daily diet are going to depend on what you’re looking to get out of eating beans.
If you’re looking for a protein-packed meal, Crumble Smith suggests soybeans, which are the only bean that contains all nine essential amino acids that our body needs but can’t produce by itself. If protein and fiber with lower carbohydrates are what you seek, go for lentils – they’re technically in the “bean family” even if they’re not traditional beans.
Studies have also shown black beans to improve glucose responses and have anti-inflammatory potential, particularly for people with insulin resistance.
Crumble Smith also recommends looking to lesser-known beans – navy beans, for example, are rich in manganese, a trace mineral that assists with healthy bones, immune and reproductive systems. Adzuki beans have positive effects on diabetes, kidney disease, cognitive decline and other diseases.
“They all are great sources of fiber, of resistant starch, of protein,” Crumble Smith says. “You can’t go wrong.”
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Are beans good for you?
Yes, beans are nutritionally dense and versatile. Many different cuisines use beans as an integral ingredient, which means you can cook them with varying flavors and ingredients to switch up your meal.
But we know what you’re thinking – aren’t beans supposed to make you gassy? Does that make them bad for us? It’s true that we sometimes have a harder time digesting beans, but it doesn’t mean you should avoid them.
Crumble Smith recommends a few quick fixes: Try chewing thoroughly, drinking lots of water and starting out small with regular bean intake to get your body used to the fiber intake before working up to larger helpings. Cooking beans, Crumble Smith says, helps remove naturally occurring lectins and phytic acid, which can decrease the absorption of minerals like iron and calcium. You can also try soaking or sprouting soft-shelled legumes like mung beans, adzuki, chickpeas or lentils.
“Soaking beans or sprouting beans makes them a little bit easier to digest,” Crumble Smith says. “When you’re sprouting that releases different digestive enzymes that help your body break them down.”
Bean sprouts themselves are another nutrient-dense choice – just be sure to wash them to avoid foodborne illnesses.
Another common worry is the added salt content in canned beans. Crumble Smith says this doesn’t need to be a huge worry, especially if you don’t regularly consume processed foods. But if you see your daily sodium intake tipping past the American Heart Association’s recommended limits (maximum 2,300 milligrams and ideally no more than 1,500 milligrams), you may want to search for a “no salt added” option or simply rinse them at home to remove some of that added salt.
Beans are also good sources of iron, but they’re non-heme, which means they don’t come from an animal. We aren’t able to absorb non-heme irons as well as heme iron sources, so you’ll want to make sure to pair it with a vitamin C-rich food to aid in absorption, Crumble Smith says.
They can also make a healthy swap for folks with cardiovascular disease or diabetes – maybe swapping out a taco tortilla for a bean-filled taco salad or mashed potatoes for a white bean mash.
“Replacing some of their carbohydrates with beans … can make a huge difference in lowering blood sugar levels,” she says.
Resistant starch is another gold star for beans, and you can increase the amount of present by cooking the beans and then letting them cool completely in the fridge, Crumble Smith says.
Which beans are the healthiest protein?
Soybeans are the best protein option when it comes to the bean family because they’re complete protein sources. This means that it contains all of the nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine) that our bodies don’t make on their own.
“That doesn’t mean you cannot combine beans with other things to get a complete protein source,” Crumble Smith says. Pair other beans with grains, nuts or seeds to consume the most protein possible.
How do I get more beans in my diet?
Soups, stir-fries, chilis, even just good old rice and beans – the options are endless.
“Keeping canned beans in your pantry as a quick option to pair together with things can make a super nutrient-dense meal,” Crumble Smith says.
Check out these recipes from USA TODAY that will use up those canned beans:
Hummus is another healthy option to buy or make. Made with chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), hummus is high in protein and can make a savory dipping snack or a sweet treat if you opt for a dessert hummus or “chickpea cookie dough.”
It’s also fairly easy to make – standard ingredients include garbanzo beans, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and some seasonings. Crumble Smith recommends switching it up by making it with white beans, black beans or even sneaking in a few veggies before you blend.
And speaking of snacks, crunchy beans make for a great snack as well. You can find roasted chickpeas ranging from salted to buffalo flavored or try seasoning any kind of bean and popping it in the oven at home.
“Lupini beans are another one of my favorites when it comes to snack just because there’s fiber, they’re satisfying, they have good protein content as well,” Crumble Smith says, “They’re traditionally a little bit more crunchy and (are great for) people who like chips and are looking for a healthier alternative.”
What are legumes?
Legumes are members of the bean family and contain over 16,000 species, including beans, peas, lentils and peanuts. They are crucial to humans, second only to the grass family in terms of importance, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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