Beans have a reputation for causing gas, which can sometimes overshadow their health value. Most beans are packed full of fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, making them one of the healthiest foods commonly available. They are also cheap, which gives them great nutritional “bang” for your buck. Narrowing it down to the healthiest bean is too subjective, although a few different types stand out above the others.
Characteristics and Benefits
Beans are one of the oldest food groups known and were a staple to the first peoples who transitioned from a nomadic “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle to a more permanent farming lifestyle. Beans are storable, easily transportable and contain many essential nutrients. More specifically, beans are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as B vitamins, minerals and most amino acids. They are also very good sources of protein, although most types are lacking at least one essential amino acid, so their protein is incomplete. The primary nutrients in beans are linked to reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating at least 3 cups per week. Most investigations into the health impact of beans focus on dried types.
Black beans, sometimes also called turtle beans, are affordable and commonly found in grocery stores. The texture of cooked black beans makes them a good substitute for beef and poultry. In addition to fiber and protein, black beans are particularly good sources of vitamin B-1, folate, tryptophan, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, iron, phosphorous and antioxidants. Folate is especially important during pregnancy because it prevents brain and spinal cord deformities in babies. Antioxidants are helpful compounds that eliminate tissue-damaging free radicals from your body.
Kidney beans are also inexpensive and widely available. Most varieties of kidney bean are very flavorful, which is why they are often used in rich-tasting stews, soups and chili. In addition to fiber and protein, kidney beans are especially good sources of vitamin B-1, vitamin K, tryptophan, molybdenum, phosphorous, copper, potassium, manganese and iron. Vitamin K is needed for blood clotting, whereas iron is needed to produce hemoglobin, the molecule in your blood that carries oxygen. Molybdenum helps to detoxify and eliminate preservatives such as sulfites from your body.
Lima beans likely originated in Peru and are known for their buttery texture. In the United States, lima beans are most often associated with succotash, a traditional Native American dish that includes corn. Beans are often combined with other grains and vegetables in order to make a complete protein source. In addition to fiber, lima beans are great sources of molybdenum, tryptophan, manganese, folate, potassium, iron, copper and vitamin B-1. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid not found in many other vegetable foods. Copper is important for immune function and the formation of enzymes.
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Contemporary Nutrition: Functional Approach; Gordon M. Wardlaw et al.
- The Nutribase Complete Book of Food Counts; Art Ulene
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.