Few foods divide people quite like beans do. They’re sometimes seen as incredibly nutritious and a powerful way to promote health, especially if you’re eating them instead of red meat or bacon. Yet, others claim that beans are a poor choice, blocking the absorption of nutrients and causing other problems. So, which is true? Are beans good for you or not?
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a question that we can answer in a single paragraph. There’s too much going on with beans – and with legumes in general.
Instead, we’re going to take a close look at the pros and cons of beans, along with who might benefit from them. After all, ingredients like beans may be healthy for some people and a poor choice for others.
Are Beans Good For You?
- The Many Types Of Beans
- Beans Versus Legumes
- Benefits Of Beans
- Antinutrients In Beans
- Other Problems With Beans
- Should You Soak Beans?
- Are Canned Beans Healthy?
- Ways To Add Beans To Your Diet
- Dried Beans Versus Fresh Beans
- What About Soybeans And Green Beans?
- Final Thoughts
The Many Types Of Beans
To begin with, beans all come from the Fabaceae plant family. They’re not fruits or vegetables, but instead fall into the category of legumes.
While legumes are highly controversial, they’re also powerful. When else can you get so much protein, fiber, and nutrients in a single ingredient?
If you’ve looked for beans before, you’ve probably noticed that there are plenty of types. Far too many to count, honestly. They come in all different colors, including black, white, red, purple, and speckled.
Some of the most popular types include cannellini beans, cranberry beans, great northern beans, black turtle beans, pinto beans, and navy beans, to name just a few. The types vary in their flavor, texture, and how they respond to cooking, which is why different types of beans work best for different dishes.
Not surprisingly, the nutrients aren’t the same from one type of bean to the next. Nor are the plant-based compounds. Still, the differences are relatively minor, so the benefits and risks that we’re highlighting here apply regardless of the type of bean you choose.
If you want specifics about the nutritional details, take a look at this partial table. The information there is just a rough guide though, as there will be nutritional differences based on where the beans are grown as well and even between one harvest and the next.
Beans Versus Legumes
Before we get too far, let’s talk about legumes for a minute, as it’s easy to get beans and legumes a bit mixed up.
Legumes is a broad category that includes beans, along with other foods, like lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, and even peanuts. Most legumes are a decent source of protein and fiber, although some are better for protein than others.
In essence, all beans are legumes, but only some legumes are beans.
Clear as mud? Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the beans.
Benefits Of Beans
A Convenient Plant-Based Source Of Protein
If you’re looking for plant-based protein, then legumes are where it’s at. Not only do you get a decent amount of protein per serving, but legumes are also inexpensive, easy to store, and packed full of nutrients.
This protein is one reason why legumes are so popular among vegetarians and vegans. After all, fruits, vegetables, and grains don’t contain that much protein and don’t keep you satisfied for long. You need something more satisfying and legumes fill the gap nicely.
Plus, beans (and most other legumes) are naturally low in fat and saturated fat. This is fantastic, as it helps keep your calorie intake in check.
The protein in beans is also perfect if you want to cut your meat intake down. You don’t need to focus on full plant-based meals either. You could easily use some meat and some beans in the same meal. Chili is a classic example of this patter, but it’s far from the only one.
Combining meat and beans like this is a great way to reduce your saturated fat intake and spread your meat out further at the same time.
A Decent Source Of Fiber And Nutrients Too
Of course, beans offer much more than just protein. There’s a considerable amount of fiber too, along with plenty of nutrients.
Let’s talk about the fiber first. You get around 7 or 8 grams of fiber per half cup of cooked beans. That’s a decent amount, especially as you probably have other fiber-filled ingredients in the same meal.
While fiber is hardly the most exciting topic, it is still a critical one. After all, fiber is what keeps your digestive system functioning well.
If your fiber intake is too low, your bowel movements may become irregular and you might not be digesting your food properly. In contrast, getting enough fiber keeps you regular, protects your heart, and offers other benefits at the same time.
Despite the importance of fiber, many of us aren’t getting enough of it. Even just throwing a handful of beans in your meals could make all the difference.
As for nutrients, folate is a standout, with a cup of kidney beans containing close to 60% of your daily folate intake. This, combined with the other nutrients, make beans an excellent choice for pregnant women. You’re also getting around 20% of your daily intake for iron, vitamin K, and thiamin, nutrients that all have critical roles in your body.
Other interesting nutrients include phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. It’s an impressive selection of nutrients for a relatively low calorie ingredient.
Promotes Heart Health
There’s an almost endless list of ways that beans can improve your health – as each of the nutrients has various impacts on your body. Being deficient in any of them puts you at risk, especially if you stay deficient for a long time.
Perhaps the most important benefit of beans is how they help to decrease your heart disease risk. Multiple studies have found this effect, showing that beans (and sometimes other legumes) improve key markers of heart disease risk, like cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
This matters, as heart disease is a huge problem, particularly in the United States. It kills many people every year, so anything that decreases your heart disease risk is worth trying.
You can take full advantage of this effect by choosing beans instead of fatty cuts of meat. Doing so should decrease your saturated fat intake, an effect that is thought to lower your heart disease risk as well.
Stabilizes Blood Sugar
Beans are also highly relevant to anyone with diabetes. The balance of protein and complex carbs means that the energy is released slowly, which helps to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
This stability makes diabetes much easier to manage. And, for anyone who doesn’t have diabetes, eating beans regularly could decrease your risk of becoming diabetic.
They’re A Source Of Complex Carbs (yes, carbs)
Carbs have a pretty bad reputation these days. They’re often thought to increase inflammation, contribute to weight gain, increase your risk of disease, and more. Some writers have gone as far as to blame carbs for the prevalence of disease these days.
Those concerns aren’t unjustified either.
We know that carbs increase our blood sugar and that high levels of blood sugar aren’t good for us. Spikes and dips in blood sugar are equally concerning and this is exactly what happens when you consume simple carbs, particularly those in processed foods.
However, beans are a source of complex carbs instead. This means that the sugar molecules are present in complex chains. The complexity of the structure means that the sugar takes longer to break down, so it’s released into our system slowly, without causing those blood sugar spikes and dips.
These carbs don’t have the same risks as simple carbs. They can even be beneficial, as they help to feed the bacteria in your gut and they provide energy. In fact, carbs are the main fuel that our body uses, so they help to provide us with energy and keep us thinking clearly.
Studies support this idea, showing people who follow diets that are rich in complex carbs tend to be healthier than those who don’t. Their carb intake may even decrease their risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
There Are Other Health Benefits Too
Honestly, we could go on and on about the benefits of beans (don’t worry, we’ll shift topics in a minute). For example, beans might be able to lower your cancer risk, due to some of their plant-based compounds, including phytosterols and isoflavones.
Beans are also fantastic for weight loss, partly due to their protein and fiber content. The weight loss effect may be even more powerful if you choose beans instead of higher calorie sources of protein.
Antinutrients In Beans
So then, to start our topic of risks, let’s get the big topic out of the way – antinutrients. The idea of antinutrients is a key reason why some people avoid legumes almost entirely.
That’s not surprising, is it? Even the name sounds scary, as does the idea that antinutrients decrease your nutrient absorption.
There are a few important points to make though.
First, antinutrients simply mean that you absorb fewer nutrients from your current meal. They don’t remove nutrients from your body.
Second, you’re still getting plenty of nutrients from your food. Not as many as you’d get otherwise, true, but the difference often isn’t that dramatic.
You’re often getting more vitamins and minerals than you need in a day anyway, so the decrease due to antinutrients shouldn’t affect your health much at all. If you’re concerned, you can easily increase your intake of nutrients anyway. Just eating a few more veggies each day should do the trick.
Antinutrients are most significant for people who don’t eat meat and rely heavily on legumes for their protein. In this situation, the antinutrients could have a noticeable impact on your nutrient absorption. But, even then, the effect won’t mean much unless your nutrient intake is limited.
Even if you do rely heavily on beans and lentils, you can easily get around the problem by increasing your fruit and vegetable intake, and by soaking your beans before using them.
Other Problems With Beans
They’re A High FODMAP Food
We also need to talk about FODMAPs. The acronym refers to foods that contain fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. These carbs aren’t well absorbed by the small intestine and, because of this, they can ferment in the colon.
That fermentation process can lead to significant side effects for some people, including water retention, increased gas, stomach cramps, bloating, and more. Such side effects are particularly significant for anyone with irritable bowel syndrome, which is why people with that condition often focus on low FODMAP diets.
Reactions to FODMAPs aren’t consistent, even for people with digestive challenges.
Because of this, it’s important to experiment for yourself. You might try cutting beans out of your diet for a while, then reintroducing them, to find out whether they cause side effects for you. I mean, honestly, beans have so many positive features – why cut them out unless you need to?
Can Cause Side Effects
Even if your digestive system isn’t sensitive, you might see some side effects from beans, including bloating and gas. If these effects don’t cause much discomfort, they’re not worth worrying about – just a natural side effect of the fiber and carbs in beans.
You might also see strong side effects if you suddenly increase your fiber intake. This is a common problem, as it takes your body time to adjust to the extra fiber intake.
To avoid this problem, try increasing your fiber intake slowly and drink plenty of water as you go. If nothing else, try giving it a little time. Fiber-related side effects don’t tend to last long. Unless you’re consuming a large amount of fiber (and most of us aren’t), you probably need all the fiber that beans provide.
May Trigger Migraines
Anyone who gets migraines regularly may need to be particularly careful, as beans contain tyramine, which can sometimes trigger a migraine. Thankfully, this side effect isn’t common, so you might not have any issues at all.
Contain A Decent Amount Of Purines
Beans are also significant sources of purines. Like tyramine, purines aren’t a big problem for most people.
However, they can increase your levels of uric acid, an effect that increases the risk of gout. People who have gout need to be particularly careful, as the purines in beans can make symptoms much worse.
Their Carb Content
We already talked about carbs in the benefits section. But, we need to circle back around to them because, honestly, carbs are complicated. They’re also very controversial.
While most experts say that the healthiest approach is to decrease your intake of simple carbs and rely on complex carbs instead, some disagree. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that low carb diets are healthier. When planned well, such diets can still provide plenty of energy and nutrients, while keeping your blood sugar much more stable than a high carb diet.
A low carb diet could even help lower inflammation, promote weight gain, and improve your health in other ways.
If you’re interested in a low carb approach, then beans aren’t a great choice. In fact, a half cup serving of black beans contains around 20 grams of carbs. Only around 8 grams of those carbs come from fiber, the rest is from resistant starch and carbs that are slowly digested.
To keep your carb intake low, you’d need to skip most beans or have very small servings. The main exception is black soybeans. These can be used in a similar way as regular beans, but they’re much lower in carbs.
Some People Are Allergic
Finally, bean allergies are a thing. They’re much less common than peanut allergies, but if you’re allergic to any other legumes, there’s a chance you’re also allergic to beans.
If this is the case, you might need to avoid beans entirely.
Should You Soak Beans?
Soaking beans offers two major benefits. First, the practice decreases the cooking time, making bean-based meals much faster to prepare. Second, soaking removes some of the lectins and other antinutrients, making the beans easier to digest.
To get the most out of your beans, be sure to soak them for at least a few hours. Soaking overnight is better or even for 12 hours. It’s also important to discard the water after soaking, as some of the antinutrients end up in the water.
Soaking beans isn’t strictly necessary. Some people skip the soaking step entirely and just cook their beans for longer. Doing so can give you a better flavor and texture, but it’s only a good idea if you’re not sensitive to the antinutrients in the beans.
Are Canned Beans Healthy?
As a rule of thumb, fresh food is always best, giving you more nutrients and antioxidants than anything that’s been processed.
This pattern is true for dried beans versus canned beans as well. You do get more nutrients with the dried beans. They tend to have a better taste and texture as well.
Canned beans, on the other hand, have fewer nutrients and contain much more sodium.
That said, canned beans still have their place. They’re already cooked, so they’re much more convenient. They could be the perfect choice when you need an easy meal and didn’t have time to plan.
The sodium content isn’t as bad as it seems either, as you can find low sodium canned beans. Draining and rinsing the beans also removes a decent amount of the sodium, making canned beans even more viable.
Canned beans will never be as healthy as fresh beans. Still… they’re not too bad.
Ways To Add Beans To Your Diet
Beans are endlessly versatile. It only takes a quick search (or a decent cookbook) to find dozens of delicious bean-based recipes – starting with chili and bean salads.
You can also use beans instead of meat in countless meals, like pasta, casseroles, and stews. If that doesn’t sound appealing, try using a mixture of beans and meat in the same dish.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. There’s no shortage of options, especially if you blend the beans and use them to create a sauce or dip. Beans can also feature as an ingredient in vegan meat patties,
Don’t forget about herbs and spices either. These are a fantastic way to make your beans taste even better.
Dried Beans Versus Fresh Beans
Most beans that you find in stores are have been dried, which is partly why they last so long. However, you can also work with fresh beans, particularly if you grow them yourself or find them at a farmer’s market.
Fresh beans should cook faster than dried ones. Their flavor is different too, as they tend to be sweeter and taste a little fresher. The beans also have tougher skin than dried beans, so they’re less likely to split or burst when you’re cooking them.
Most bean research has focused on dried beans, so there’s little information about nutritional differences. Still, fresh beans probably contain a similar amount of nutrients as dried beans – or possibly more.
What About Soybeans And Green Beans?
This post has focused on shell beans, which is the type that’s sold dried in stores and that you can grow yourself if you want to. However, there are also soybeans and green beans. Despite the similarity in names, there are key differences between these and shell beans.
Let’s start with soybeans.
Like shell beans, soybeans contain a decent amount of protein. They’re popular among vegan dieters and soy is often used to create vegan meat alternatives.
Soybeans have most of the same benefits and risks as shell beans, except that they’re also high in isoflavones. Those compounds may offer benefits in some situations, but there’s also plenty of debate about them.
Green beans are different again. In some senses, they’re not beans at all.
For one thing, we tend to eat them fresh, often still in their pods, rather than drying them. Some people even eat green beans raw (although the lectins in the beans can lead to significant side effects if you do this).
Then there’s the protein. While shell beans and soybeans both provide a decent amount of protein, the same isn’t true for green beans. You only get a couple of grams of protein in a cup of green beans. That’s a fraction of the protein content in dried beans.
So, while shell beans can be the main source of protein in a meal, green beans are better used as a side vegetable instead.
Despite all the controversy, beans have many more benefits than risks, for most people. As long as you’re healthy and are getting a decent amount of nutrients elsewhere in your diet, you should be able to enjoy beans without any problem at all.
The most important thing, as always, is to pay attention to your body. Keep an eye on any reactions and how these change over time. If you’re unsure, try cutting beans out for a while and reintroducing them. This should show you whether beans give you any side effects.
Don’t forget to soak the beans before using them too. Seriously. This makes all the difference for their digestibility.