Beautiful beans! These little legumes really don’t get the credit they deserve. They’re affordable, packed with cruelty-free protein, rich in fiber, easy to prepare, versatile and delicious! Need I say more?
Turns out, I do.
See, I’ve been hearing some nasty rumors about beans lately. Some people say they’re making us gain weight. Others claim that they’re interfering with our blood sugar. Some even say we should avoid legumes because they contain “anti-nutrients.” What?!
I know there’s a lot of information out there when it comes to what to eat for optimal health, which can be confusing. We’re constantly bombarded with messages about which foods cause disease and which prevent it, what we can (and can’t) eat if we want to lose weight and what’s safe to feed our families.
Don’t get me wrong, many of these messages about food are not only valid, but also incredibly important. But when the facts are cherry-picked, how can we possibly decide what to listen to?
The truth is out there! And when it comes to the bean debate, I’m gonna help you find it. That’s why I asked our super-knowledgeable Nutrition Director, Jen Reilly, to weigh in. Wait ‘til you hear what she has to say—it’s gonna restore your love for beans!
Take it away, Jen!
Busting the Bean Myth
by Crazy Sexy Nutrition Director Jen Reilly, RD
Before we dive into some of the sneaky rumors surrounding beans, let’s review why they’ve built up such a great reputation over the years. There are countless studies singing the praises of legumes (split peas, beans and lentils) of all shapes, sizes and colors. Here are just a few of the many wonderful things to love about them:
- Beans are among the cheapest sources of protein on the planet and produce the lowest level of greenhouse gases per gram of protein (World Resources Institute report on Sustainable Diets).
- They may be responsible for keeping your heart healthy by preventing coronary heart disease—meaning they lower or prevent high blood pressure and help ward off strokes (study).
- They’re chock full of antioxidants, which prevent inflammation, aging and may reduce the risk of cancer.
- Because of their hard-to-find soluble fiber, eating 3-½ or more servings a week (about 1-¾ cups cooked beans or lentils total over the course of a week) will lower your type 2 diabetes risk by 35% (study).
However, despite all of the support from the medical community, beans have started getting a bad rap. The criticism mostly stems from the latest pseudoscience-based diet fad that tells us we should avoid foods that contain lectins. Plus, we’re hearing buzzwords like “phytates” and “anti-nutrients” used in misleading ways to criticize beans. This negativity is also riding on the coattails of the anti-carb craze. Because yes, some people are still trying to convince us to be afraid of carbs, even the healthy, complex ones from the plant kingdom.
But, beans are not the enemy. In fact, any diet that suggests you eliminate a global dietary staple with a near-perfect nutrition profile (low in saturated fat, rich in fiber, iron, copper, magnesium and antioxidants) that has nourished the planet since 6000 B.C. raises red flags for nutrition experts. So, let’s explore four of the most destructive bean critiques and what the research really says:
Myth #1: The lectins in beans are “anti-nutrients” that cause IBS, inflammation, obesity and some autoimmune diseases.
Lectins are a protein found in a third of the foods we eat, and they are especially high in beans, grains and seeds. These guys are the latest in a string of enemies named by fad diets.
Some lectins may be harmful and may be responsible for damaging the intestinal wall leading to nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. It’s also possible that people with digestive issues such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome are more sensitive to the damaging potential of lectins. But, proper cooking eliminates the harmful ones almost completely (more on how to make sure you’re properly cooking your beans below).
Back in 1988, lectins started giving beans a bad name when a number of hospital workers got sick from eating a kidney bean dish that wasn’t properly cooked (study). Unfortunately, beans’ image took another hit in 2006 when a Japanese TV broadcast introduced a new weight loss strategy that called for sprinkling powdered, toasted white kidney beans onto staple foods. Those beans weren’t cooked properly, either (kidney beans should be boiled for at least 60 minutes after soaking and these were toasted for just 3!). As a result, over a thousand viewers suffered from intestinal problems and 100 people were hospitalized (aka “the white kidney bean incident in Japan”).
No conclusive research has been done in humans to support claims that properly cooked beans are responsible for causing IBS, inflammation, obesity, etc. In fact, there’s a large body of research on the health benefits of lectins! Studies indicate that they may improve gut health, prevent tumor growth, slow down cancer cell growth (study) and prevent obesity.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Most healthy plant foods contain lectins. Ya know what else they contain? Fiber! Fiber is essential for a healthy metabolism and digestion, as well as a strong immune system. It also helps prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Avoiding lectins means avoiding plant foods, and avoiding plant foods means avoiding fiber. You catch my drift?
Myth #2: Beans contain phytates, which bind to minerals and slow their absorption.
It’s true that the phytates in beans may slow or reduce the absorption of certain minerals. But, beans also happen to be quite rich in those very minerals! The confusion may come from the fact that some foods (such as whole grains) are rich in phytates but not as high in minerals as legumes, meaning that it may be harder to absorb enough minerals from those foods alone. But unless your diet is very high in high-phytate grains with very little legume variety, this shouldn’t be an issue. And if you want to play it extra safe, load up on garlic and onions in your bean dishes—they’re pros at increasing mineral absorption. Score!
Here’s something else that the critics often don’t take into account: Phytates actually have a handful of positive traits. They may stop the growth of cancer cells (research article) and prevent osteoporosis (study). So, as long as you’re getting plenty of mineral-rich foods (which is exactly what you’ll get if you eat a variety of plant foods) in your daily routine, you may actually benefit from the phytates in beans. Go figure!
Myth #3: Beans are “high carb,” so they cause blood sugar spikes.
This criticism is misleading and simply not true. And it really makes my beans boil because I have two kids with type 1 (insulin dependent) diabetes. They eat beans nearly every day and I’m able to watch their blood sugars on continuous glucose monitors every 5 minutes. The digestion of carbs in beans is so slow that we often see a welcome, slow and subtle rise in their blood sugar levels several hours after eating beans. Nothing even close to a “spike” occurs. In fact, I attribute their steady blood sugars (few spikes and few crashes) to their bean-heavy diets.
And the research backs up my at-home experience. Studies suggest that because of their low glycemic index (due to high fiber content), the digestion of carbohydrates in beans is slower, doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes and results in better long-term blood sugar control as indicated by lower hemoglobin A1C (HgbA1C) blood test results.
Some argue that the fiber in beans is the real reason that people who eat a lot of them have better blood sugar control. But one study dispelled this myth by comparing two different diets for type 2 diabetics. One diet contained 1 cup of legumes per day and the other contained no legumes, but included an increased amount of insoluble fiber. The group consuming the legumes had better long-term blood sugar control than those consuming a diet high in fiber but devoid of legumes (study).
Myth #4: Animal protein is more high-quality than the protein in beans—and the protein in beans isn’t sufficient for building and maintaining muscle mass, especially as we age.
Animal protein is “complete,” meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids, which are building blocks for our bodies. Animal protein also has more protein per ounce than legumes. Some folks suggest that these tidbits mean that animal protein is better quality than plant protein. This argument would only hold up if it were difficult to meet our basic protein needs with plants—and that’s simply not the case.
Legumes contain eight of the nine essential amino acids needed to build protein (and soybeans actually contain all nine!). But, the ninth amino acid (methionine) is easily found in whole grains. Most adults can meet their methionine needs by eating four servings a day of whole grains (for example: one bowl of oatmeal, two pieces of whole grain bread and a serving of quinoa).
Now, as for building and maintaining muscle, getting enough high-quality protein (which can come from beans and a variety of other plant sources) is just one piece of the puzzle. In fact, there is such a thing as too much! Research shows that eating more protein than your body really needs in a day (multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36 or your weight in kilograms by 0.8 to get your daily requirement in grams) has no benefit and can actually be harmful to kidney function and bone health.
You can build and maintain muscle mass by getting the right amount of protein, practicing regular strength and resistance training and eating plenty of complex carbohydrates. This does take more maintenance and dedication as we age (because estrogen and testosterone levels decline) but it’s far from impossible. Moreover, no validated research indicates that animal protein is an essential piece of the puzzle.
Follow these tips for safe and happy bean consumption:
- Soak your beans overnight before you cook them. This makes them easier to digest and starts the process of eliminating the harmful lectins we talked about.
- Learn how long to cook your favorite beans. Kidney beans require the longest cooking time, so boil them for a full hour. Other beans only need to be boiled for 20-30 minutes (actual time depends on size—smaller beans need less time) as long as they’ve been soaked. Using a pressure cooker is also a great way to ensure beans are fully cooked in less time.
- Ease legumes into your diet if you’re not already regularly eating them. Start with smaller varieties like lentils and black-eyed peas.
- Consider cooking them with kombu seaweed, which contains enzymes that break down gas-causing compounds. This should make them easier to digest.
- Consider adding probiotics and digestive enzymes to your routine (read more about those here) to ease digestion.
- Look for BPA-free cans or BPA-free tetra paks when you’re buying prepared beans. Also be sure to rinse them well to remove excess sodium.
Here’s the bottom line: Beans are not the enemy. They’re an important part of a healthy plant-based diet. You shouldn’t need to avoid them unless you have an allergy or particular digestive challenge like Crohn’s or irritable bowel syndrome. If you do have Crohn’s or irritable bowel, some of the tips above may help if you want to eat beans—consult with your doctor when in doubt.
I hope this information eases any concerns you might have about beans. If you have any remaining questions, ask them in the comments below. I’ll be answering as many as possible!