Beans: The Super Food that Keeps You Full

The humble bean is quite the super food: packed with calcium, iron, potassium and B vitamins, plus about a quarter of the protein and half the fiber recommended daily for adults—all in a single serving. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beans may even lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, which can help boost heart health. Beans also do double-duty in the food pyramid as both a vegetable and a protein. Not to mention, beans are easy to cook with, widely available and inexpensive.

Beans and their legume cousins (such as soybeans, chickpeas and lentils) have been cultivated and consumed for centuries as a part of many world cuisines: Black beans figure prominently in Central American and Caribbean dishes, chickpeas are a staple of Middle Eastern cooking, lentils are common in Indian and Persian recipes, and white beans are a fixture of French and Italian cookbooks.

Even though beans offer a slew of health benefits and culinary flexibility, they aren't a prominent staple of American diets—though many vegetarians routinely incorporate beans in their cooking. Perhaps it's a matter of taste or texture: By themselves, cooked beans aren't intensely flavorful (but that makes them a great foundation for other ingredients like tomatoes, peppers and herbs), and their texture can be a bit mushy if overcooked. Then there's the gastrointestinal effect that beans produce in some people. Because beans are high in both complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber, they can cause gas when they're digested in the large intestine. Rinsing canned beans can remove some of the sugars that can cause gas as well.

Beans have such compelling nutritional benefits that they're worth experimenting with in your kitchen. Here’s how.

Canned Beans vs. Dried Beans: Which Are Better?

Canned beans are super easy to use, and you'll find a number of options on your grocer's shelves. But, like many packaged foods, they can pack a lot of salt. When selecting canned beans, choose a low-sodium variety whenever possible. Scan the nutrition labels and opt for the product with the lowest sodium—levels can vary widely. For example, Eden Organic chickpeas have 30 milligrams of sodium per half cup serving, while Progresso chickpeas have 280 milligrams for the same portion. Most recipes call for draining and rinsing canned beans; doing so removes up to 40 percent of the added sodium. Also, rinsing off the starchy liquid the beans were cooked and preserved in helps keep them from getting too soggy in your recipe--and remember that it helps reduce the gassy feeling beans can cause.

Though canned beans are a quick and easy alternative to dried, it is worth noting that canned foods may contain traces of the plastic chemical BPA, which can permeate canned foods through the plastic lining inside of the can. Very few brands of canned foods are made without BPA, so if exposure to this chemical concerns you, dried beans are the way to go.

Dried beans are quite easy to prepare from scratch, but they do take more time. Using dried varieties will also allow you to control how much salt is added and to get the texture you prefer. Some people believe that freshly cooked beans also taste better than canned.

To prepare dried beans, start with a bag from your grocer (you can also buy dried beans in bulk), then rinse the beans and pick out any small stones or broken pieces. Next, place the beans in a large bowl, cover them completely with water and soak for several hours or overnight (they’ll expand, so make sure to use plenty of water). Soaking the beans reduces their cooking time. Drain the beans and place in a large pot, along with a stalk of celery, a carrot and a small onion, all cut into large chunks. Bring to a boil for about five minutes, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are done to your taste. Cooked beans freeze well; simply portion them out in zip-top bags or freezer containers, spoon in a bit of cooking liquid, or drizzle with a bit of olive oil and freeze for up to six months.

Simple Ways to Bean-up Your Diet

You know they are good for you, but how do you begin to incorporate beans into your meals? Here are four simple ideas.
  1. Incorporate beans into your favorite dishes. Italian and Mexican recipes are easily enhanced with beans. Simply rinse and drain a can of black beans and add them to your favorite homemade or jarred salsa. Use the mixture to top tostadas or tacos. Or, make an easy and hearty traditional Italian pasta dish with sausage, spinach and white beans.
  2. Add beans to soups and stews. White beans, also known as Cannellini beans, are prime candidates for the Italian soup called pasta e fagioli. Use kidney or black beans in your family's favorite chili recipe. Make a Cuban-style black bean soup that's packed with bell peppers and a kick of jalapeno; make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock instead of chicken.
  3. Add beans to your repertoire of snacks and appetizers. A puree of Cannellini beans, garlic, olive oil and an herb like basil or rosemary makes a simple and flavorful spread for warm pita, flatbread crackers or bread sticks. Spread the puree on a slice of whole wheat bread and top with sliced tomatoes, red onion, red bell pepper, lettuce, cucumber or whatever's in the produce drawer for a protein-packed veggie sandwich.
  4. Pack beans for lunch. The high fiber and protein content make beans a smart addition to your midday meal. Combine a can of white beans (rinsed and drained), a can of light tuna, a bit of scallion, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice to make a Mediterranean-style salad. Or, toss white beans with a pint of cherry tomatoes (halved), a bit of Feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil and cracked black pepper, then use whole wheat pita bread for scooping.

Nutrition Facts for Popular Beans

 Legumes, 1 cup cooked  Protein  Calories  Fiber
 Black beans  15 g  227  15 g
 Garbanzo beans/Chickpeas  15 g  269  12 g
 Kidney beans  15 g  225  11 g
 Lentils  18 g  230  16 g
 Lima beans  15 g  216  13 g
 Navy beans  16 g  258  12 g
 Pinto beans  14 g  234  15 g
 Soybeans  29 g  298  10 g
 Split peas  16 g  231  16 g

If you're feeling adventurous, branch out beyond the navy beans you'll find in your local stores and look for varieties like Borlotti, Scarlet Runner or Cranberry. If you're lucky, your hometown farmers market may be a good source for unusual or heirloom shelled and dried beans.