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To my mind, beans are an unsung hero.

For those of us following a whole food, plant-based diet, beans can be a powerful ally as a source of protein, fiber, and as an overall deliciously satisfying meal. No wonder the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses to position pulses as a primary source of protein and other essential nutrients.

And with over 40,000 different varieties, you are sure to never get bored in the kitchen.

And yet beans often are not ‘top of mind’ when it comes to eating a whole food plant-based diet.

For those of you who follow this blog, you know how much I love beans.

Let’s discuss the many reasons why you should love them too!

The Brazil Connection

Foods bring back beautiful memories for all of us. When the subject is beans, I cannot help but think of my country’s national dish: feijoada.

Usually served on Saturday afternoons, feijoada is the perfect opportunity to gather the family around a great bean-filled meal.

Traditionally, a Brazilian feijoada is made of black beans, salted pork or beef, smoked pork ribs, and some sausage and jerked beef thrown in the mix. But fortunately, there exist plenty of vegetarian varieties of this amazing dish including caldinho, which is a delicious black bean soup served in small ceramic cups or shot glasses.

So let’s find out more about these magical beans…

How to Eat Beans

Here are a few of the beans that you can eat and how you can prepare them:

  • Chickpeas. Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a key ingredient in curries, one of the most popular dishes in places like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They are used to make hummus and falafel and are delicious in salads and stews.
  • Black Beans. A staple of Latin American cuisine, they make burritos, soups, and side dishes.
  • Navy Beans. They are the main ingredient in baked beans, a favorite in both Britain and the US.
  • Pinto Beans. Often used in refried beans, they are a great burrito-filler.  The pinto bean gets its name from its mottled skin which reminded people of the spotted pinto horse.
  • Lentils. Inexpensive and nutritious, lentils are delicious in stews, chilis, or mixes with rice. They are
    extremely popular in South Asia, the Mediterranean and all over the Middle East.
  • Red Beans. Found mainly in chilis, red beans are also used to make red beans and rice.

All the Reasons Why…

Here are six beautiful reasons why you should be eating beans (every day!):

  1. They Satiate. Beans are a great source of fiber which is what helps keep you full. So what better way to keep those hunger pangs at bay than by eating some legumes?
  2. They Are Packed With Protein. Beans are one of the best plant-based sources of protein with 1/2 cup providing you with 7 grams of protein.
  3. They Lower Risk of Heart Disease. Studies have shown that people who eat more legumes have a lower risk of heart disease. Probably due to the phytochemicals beans contain.
  4. They Lower Cholesterol. Another study showed that cholesterol levels were cut sharply by adding two servings of beans (lentils, chickpeas, beans or split peas) to your daily diet. Chickpeas rank as a ‘star’ bean when it comes to controlling cholesterol; they have been shown to be even more effective than many cholesterol lowering drugs. One study demonstrated a whopping 20% drop in cholesterol levels in as little as 5 months just by replacing some dietary grains with chickpeas.
  5. They Are Linked to Increased Longevity. In a recent study conducted in Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia, scientists saw an 8% reduction in death risk for every 20-gram increase in daily legume intake. Conversely, diets devoid of beans appear to be linked to decreased lifespan. For example, a recent Taiwanese study points to the fact that a bean-free diet could be a significant mortality predictor in women.
  6. They Decrease the Risk of Diabetes. Beans can play a very important role in helping reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. In fact, regular bean consumption can be as effective as portion control in reducing pre-diabetes risk factors — like a slimmer waistline and improved blood glucose control. According to studies, three or more servings of beans a week reduces the odds of developing prediabetes, also known as metabolic syndrome, by 25%.

Beans—Some Fun Facts

Here are some more fun facts about beans that I bet you did not know:

  1. Beans were important in ancient Greek politics. Minor public officials were selected using beans; a load of black beans plus one white bean were put inside a ‘bean machine’ and whoever picked the white bean got the job.
  2. In Nicaragua, newlyweds are given a bowl of beans for good luck.
  3. Beans are multi-faceted! They can be made into burgers, cakes, drinks, pies, fudge, muffins, furniture (i.e. bean-bag chairs), toys and musical instruments.
  4. The world’s largest bean pods can grow up to 5 feet long.
  5. The ancient Romans shipped an obelisk across the Mediterranean packed in lentils.
  6. Beans come in all varieties, sizes and costs. For example, the bright yellow Tuscan zolfino bean costs $20/pound while the humble navy bean costs only 69 cents/pound.
  7. Every hour, 38.5 tons of baked beans are eaten in Britain.
  8. In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras grew to hate beans because he believed they contained the souls of
    the dead.
  9. Navy beans got their name from the U.S. Navy; they were the last food on the ship when everything fresh ran out.
  10. Legumes were so highly thought of in ancient Rome that the four leading families took their names from them: Lentullus (lentil), Piso (pea), Cicero (chickpea), and Fabius (fava).

Beans are overall a great addition to a whole food plant-based diet with experts actually recommending you eat 3 cups of the legumes every week.

Explore the many varieties and start incorporating them into your diet today!

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.