Beans, Beans, They Really Are Good For Your Heart

Remember the ditty that used to drive your mom crazy at the dinner table? “Beans, Beans, they’re good for your heart; the more you eat, the more you fart; the more you fart the better you feel; so eat your beans at every meal!”

Well, now there’s scientific basis to this exuberant rhyme: According to Canadian researchers, eating one serving a day of beans, peas, chickpeas or lentils (known as legumes or pulses) can significantly reduce our so-called “bad cholesterol” and therefore the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Their study, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that by eating one serving a day of legumes, people could lower their LDL cholesterol by five per cent.

According to lead author Dr. John Sievenpiper of the St. Michael Hospital’s Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre, this could translate into a five to six per cent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease in Canada.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.  This is followed closely by cancer, and as we discuss below, legumes may also help lower our cancer risk.

One serving of legumes is 130 grams or ¾ cup, yet Canadians — and presumably the rest of us in the industrialized west — on average eat less than half a serving a day. Most people in North America would have to more than double their consumption of legumes to reach that target, estimates Dr. Sievenpiper.

The study is based on a meta-analysis that reviewed 26 randomized controlled trials including 1,037 people. Men were found to have a greater reduction in LDL cholesterol compared with women, perhaps because their diets are poorer and cholesterol levels are higher, and they benefit more markedly from a healthier diet, the Canadian researchers hypothesize.

The many benefits of legumes

Legumes – a staple of the Mediterranean Diet — have so much going for them, I don’t know where to start.

For one, they have a modest glycemic impact (meaning they convert slowly into blood glucose and therefore don’t cause glycemic spikes); this is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Legumes are packed with fiber, which dilutes, binds, inactivates and removes carcinogens, cholesterol, bile acids and various toxic substances and reduces their glycemic impact.

Beans are also a good source of protein, an essential macro-nutrient needed for tissue growth and repair. Although protein accounts for only 20-25 per cent of legumes’ calories (the rest being carbohydrates and small amounts of fat), they are good alternatives to meat, especially when whole grains are also eaten. (Together they provide all the amino acids the human organism needs — hence the popularity of bean-and-rice dishes in many traditional cuisines).

As if this weren’t enough, beans – especially red, pink and black ones – contain a wealth of antioxidant polyphenols thought to protect our cells from free-radical attack and lower the risk of disease.

Moreover, the phytic acid, phytoestrogens, and protease inhibitors in beans are thought to lower our risk of some cancers by blocking estrogen receptors, inhibiting tumor formation, interfering with carcinogenic activity and modulating hormones.

Finally, legumes are cheap and easy to store, which is why they’re so popular in less-affluent countries.

Oh, and did I mention delicious? Of course, it’s a matter of personal taste, but I struggle to think of any food as versatile as legumes. Take a look at a few ethnic-cuisine cookbooks if you don’t believe me; far from being stodgy hippie food, every food culture in the world boasts exciting and flavorful bean dishes I urge you to discover.

You don’t have to “toot” to enjoy the “musical fruit”

It’s the oligosaccharides – a type of carbohydrate – in beans that cause the dreaded gastrointestinal effects celebrated in the bean ditty: Bacteria in the large intestine digest these sugars, producing carbon dioxide and hydrogen. These gases are expelled from the body as flatulence.

However, you don’t have to sign up for a life of flatulence by shifting to a higher intake of legumes.  For one, most people who regularly eat legumes notice a gradual reduction in these embarrassing but entirely harmless symptoms as their organism and gut bacteria adapt to the increased legume intake.

If you don’t want to wait for this adaptation process to run its course, however, there are other ways to make legume easier to digest.

Many bean recipes call for soaking beans in water overnight before cooking. Soaked beans take less time to cook, and they also ferment a little. Fermentation makes the beans easier to digest, so your gut doesn’t have to work so hard and you produce less gas.

By adding two types of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) to the soaking water, the gas-inducing effects of beans can be further reduced. Scientists in Venezuela found that adding Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus plantarum to soaking water improved the fermentation process by breaking down the fibrous nutrients that can lead to gassy outbursts. After the bacteria had done their thing and the beans were cooked, the amounts of nutrients that could be digested and absorbed from the bean had increased significantly and their gas-inducing power reduced.

I haven’t tried this myself (I usually soak my beans in plain water), but plan to do so and will report back here. If you want to give it a try, any good health food store should sell probiotic supplements containing L. casei and L. plantarum. They’re also available online here.

Lastly, anecdotal evidence suggests that some legumes are “gassier” than others: many of my clients report that they find lentils and chickpeas easier to digest than larger, kidney-shaped beans such as navy, kidney, pinto and fava. So if you’re new to legumes, why not start out with lentils (red, brown or the “caviar of lentils,” the dark green French Puy variety). An added benefit is that lentils can even be cooked without soaking! (Though I usually soak them anyway, to speed up cooking times.)

Each issue of Modern Mediterranean Meal Plans, my monthly recipe and meal-planning service (download free issue here), contains at least one legume recipe.  The April issue (out next week) will include a Moroccan-inspired springtime stew of lima beans with artichokes. Past issues have featured Lebanese moujadra and Egyptian koshari  (delicious Mid-Eastern bean-and-rice combos), Tuscan bean and kale soup, curried red-lentil and apple stew (dal) and French bean mash infused with rosemary and garlic.

Here are some other quick ways to get more beans into your diet:

  • Scatter cooked beans or chickpeas over a big, mixed salad
  • Add cooked beans and chickpeas to soups and stews
  • Throw together a quick salad of cooked beans and leftover rice, spring onions, bell pepper cubes, parsley and a glug of lemony olive-oil vinaigrette
  • Bean and canned-fish salad (such as the classic Italian tonno e fagioli); this is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Eat hummus (made from chickpeas) as a snack with carrot sticks or celery
  • Mash warm beans, refried-bean-style, with garlic, herbs and olive oil as a tasty side-dish
  • Fry white beans up in olive oil with garlic and shredded greens (spinach, arugula, baby broccoli, kale, etc.) for a delicious, quick dinner
  • Baked beans for breakfast (avoid shop-bought baked beans; make your own in a slow-cooker)
  • Make a big batch of French-style lentil stew including carrots, onions, garlic, celery, leeks, bay leaf and thyme, season with a splash of balsamic vinegar and freeze in smaller portions quick, re-heatable meals (this tastes good cold, too, drizzled with a little balsamic vinaigrette)

If you need help learning to love beans (and other healthy Mediterranean foods), why not book a session with me? You can find out about my coaching services here.

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