If you’re on the hunt for simple ways to eat well for better health and performance, then you’ve probably heard about the benefits of following a plant-based diet. And with plant-based diet recommendations often comes the promotion of adding more beans to your plate. That’s because the health benefits of beans expand from packing vitamins and minerals to offering plenty of healthy carbs, protein, and lots of fiber.
Research backs up the health benefits associated with eating more beans too. For instance, a report published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that when people swapped out some of the eggs, bread, rice, or baked potatoes in their diet for legumes they were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Another study found an association between higher bean consumption and reduced cancer mortality. Research also links eating more legumes with a lower risk of premature death overall. And incorporating beans into the diet can also aid in any weight-loss efforts.
Beans are a cornerstone of the Blue Zone diets around the world—the term that refers to geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and historically live longer than anywhere else. Dietary habits, including a regular rotation of beans on the menu, are thought to play a major role in their longevity.
What’s more, in this time of rising food prices, it’s important to know that beans still offer a very wallet-friendly source of nutrition. The only problem: Dietary surveys show that we are typically not eating enough of this ingredient.
Read on to find out why it’s about time you and all cyclists spill the beans on mealtime more often.
What Foods Fit the Bean Category
Beans are the pod-borne seeds of a family of flowering plants called Fabaceae. They are often included among the crops called legumes (or pulses). Legumes are plants that bear fruit that grows in pods and can be broken down into different subsections including beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts. In other words: All beans are legumes, but not all legumes are necessarily beans.
There is a vast array of edible beans, but some of the most common ones at the supermarket include black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, and garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas).
The Health Benefits of Beans
The exact nutritional content varies between each type of bean, but all of them generally have a similar (and impressive) nutritional resume:
1. They pack powerful protein
Beans of all guises are a good source of plant protein. This is especially noteworthy if you eat a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet, as these eating styles need to prioritize non-meat sources of this macronutrient.
“Legumes are going to be your best source of protein if you are going more plant-based,” says Kayla Slater, M.S., R.D.N., founder and owner of Plant-Based Performance Nutrition and Run Coaching, LLC. A cup of black beans or navy beans has 15 grams of protein. “Protein is important for various aspects of health and performance because it helps build muscle and aids in muscle recovery after workouts,” Slater tells Runner’s World. You also need adequate dietary protein for bone development and immune system support.
But Slater says even meat eaters can benefit from pivoting to plant proteins more often. A large study review published in BMJ found that not only was a higher intake of total protein associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, but also a greater consumption of plant protein was associated with a lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease death. And this life-extending benefit was not limited only to vegans. “A big reason for the health benefit is that plant proteins like beans are typically lower in saturated fat,” Slater explains.
As for cyclists worried about getting most, if not all, of their protein from plant foods like beans, the most recent research shows that as long as you get enough total protein—which can be as high as 1.6 to 1.8 grams per kilograms of body weight if you are fairly active—it does not matter where you get the macronutrient (plants or animals) if you want to build and maintain lean body mass.
2. They offer filling fiber
Slater lauds beans are a superb source of fiber, “a type of carbohydrate that’s important for keeping your digestive system healthy.”
For example, a cup of cooked kidney beans supplies about 13 grams of fiber, whereas the same amount of pinto beans delivers 15 grams. So certainly adding beans to the diet can help you overcome the fiber shortfall that the majority of people experience.
It’s the fiber, and soluble fiber in particular, present in canned beans that is likely a big reason a study in the Journal of Nutrition found that daily intake of these convenient legumes can lower total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol numbers. And if you find yourself having trouble breathing mid-way through a ride, take heed of one study, which shows a link between higher fiber consumption and a lower risk for asthma and other respiratory symptoms including wheezing, cough, and phlegm. This might be because of fiber’s anti-inflammatory effects.
Several of the impressive benefits of eating more fiber from foods like beans may result from it altering the gut microbiota, the bacteria that can metabolize fiber into byproducts like short-chain fatty acids (also called ‘postbiotics’) that are emerging as important players in human health.
The combo of fiber and protein in beans also increases satiety from a meal, making them an especially filling food to help control appetite. This is important if you find yourself needlessly snacking throughout the day. “The fiber and protein in beans can help fill you up on fewer calories and keep you satisfied for longer,” says Slater.
One randomized study discovered that high-protein legume-based meals promote greater feelings of fullness and lower post-meal sensations of hunger than high-protein animal-based meals, which are much lower in fiber. Research also suggests that a high-fiber, bean-rich diet is just as effective for weight loss as a low-carb diet, but is better at improving cholesterol numbers.
3. They provide some magic micronutrients
All types of beans are a reliable source of a vast range of micronutrient vitamins and minerals. These include vitamin K, folate, iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and copper. Using data from the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) researchers found that people who consumed more pulses, which includes beans, typically had higher quality diets including greater intakes of several important micronutrients such as magnesium, potassium, and folate, compared to non-consumers.
That means eating beans regularly can certainly make it much easier for cyclists to reach all their nutrient needs. For example, a cup of kidney beans supplies more than half the daily requirement for folate. “Folate helps break down homocysteine, a harmful amino acid if in the body in large amounts, and assists in building healthy blood cells,” notes Slater.
Each cup of cooked lima beans also gives you about one-third of the need for magnesium, a mineral linked to improved blood pressure numbers. Magnesium may relax blood vessels, which increases blood flow, thereby decreasing blood pressure.
Beans are also a decent source of iron, a mineral necessary for helping transport oxygen to your working muscles, and why having poor iron status can make your ride feel like a slog. Though the form of iron in beans is not as well absorbed as that in animal-based foods like beef, Slater says you can remedy some of this by pairing beans with a source of vitamin C, such as bell peppers, which increases absorption rates.
4. They also serve up all the antioxidants
It’s not just fruits and vegetables that give you antioxidants. Beans are a surprising source of these plant chemicals, including a type called polyphenols. According to Slater, polyphenols can help reduce cell damage in the body and thereby lower the risk for several diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. “The antioxidants in beans can also help with recovery after intense workouts because they function to lower inflammation and oxidative damage to your muscles.”
It appears that beans with a dark skin color such as black and kidney have a higher antioxidant capacity than their paler counterparts like navy. Black beans, in particular, are extra rich in anthoycanins, the same brain-benefiting antioxidants found in berries, like blueberries and blackberries.
Not to be overlooked, there can also be an environmental benefit to trading in beef for beans a little more often. A report in the journal Nutrients found that just replacing meat twice a week with pulses can have a modest benefit when it comes to the environmental sustainability of the diet. The more meat you wedge out of your diet in favor of plants the greater the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production, according to some research.
What to Know About the Gas-Producing Side Effects
One of the biggest complaints about eating more beans is the gas. This occurs when bacteria in your large intestine break down (ferment) hard-to-digest carbs, such as the raffinose in beans, with gas being a byproduct. But rest easy knowing that the more you eat, the less you tweet.
Over time, Slater says your digestive system adapts to the gas-producing compounds pulses contain. An interesting theory is that when people add more high-fiber foods like beans to their diet it can take a while for their digestive tracts to become populated by the microorganisms needed to properly break down the fiber and this, in the interim, can lead to discomfort and other GI woes.
“Begin by eating beans only a couple of times each week, then gradually increase the servings from there,” explains Slater. Research has found that the gassy impact diminishes dramatically if you continue to include beans in your diet regularly.
The one time you do want to be careful about eating a big serving of beans: right before a ride. All that fiber can be uncomfortable when you are trying to keep up the pace.
To help stave off gas, research shows that soaking dry beans for up to 18 hours and discarding the soaking water can reduce levels of oligosaccharides, which are poorly digested carbohydrate substances that can cause bloating or flatulence. Slater notes that refreshing the soaking water once can lower the offending carbs further. It also helps to skim off any froth that appears during cooking. And cook dried beans until fork-tender, as well-cooked starches are easier to digest.
You can also try adding a little baking soda (about 1 teaspoon) to the cooking water when preparing dried beans. The baking soda helps break down some of the beans’ natural gas-making sugars. Or try using a pressure cooker that can break down the gas generating compounds quickly before they hit your digestive tract.
“If using canned beans, rinsing them well will reduce these substances further along with some of the excess sodium,” Slater says. Additionally, she says several over-the-counter products contain digestive enzymes to help ease the digestion of beans and other legumes.
You may also hear that beans and other legumes contain lectins, a group of proteins that can reduce our absorption of certain micronutrients like calcium—it’s why they have been classified as anti-nutrients. There are also claims that lectins can damage the gut wall leading to leaky gut, diarrhea, and a bunch of other health issues. “But soaking dry beans for several hours and cooking them in boiling water greatly reduces lectin levels to the point where they are of little concern,” says Slater.
How to Eat More Beans to Maximize Benefits
You'll be glad to know that Slater says there is no research showing that canned beans are any less nutritious than their dried counterparts. “And you can now find canned beans that are lower in sodium,” she says. Just know that dried beans tend to have an advantage when it comes to texture and flavor, and cost per serving. The need for a pre-soak just requires a bit of forethought.
If you’re going the extra mile and cooking dried beans, pay it forward by simmering up a large batch and freezing extras in an air-tight container for future use.
Versatile beans can be incorporated into a great variety of dishes, including soups, stews, pasta, salads, curries, and dips like hummus. They can also serve as meat substitutes when making items like tacos, burgers, and even meatloaf.
Be sure to play the field and work a variety of beans into your diet for different flavors, textures, and nutrition.