Beans, Beans; They’re Good for Your Heart

February 23, 2015

How could I resist using that silly little ditty from our childhoods to begin a discussion of beans…and their influence on your heart health?


I can’t. My inner Henny Youngman just won’t let me…


As corny as that little song is, it rings of truth. Beans, eaten regularly are great for creating a healthy heart.  But don’t panic. You don’t need a hill of them to reap the benefits (I know; the hits just keep on coming…). According to The Journal of Nutrition, a mere half-cup of cooked beans daily can help reduce cholesterol.


It gets better.


Research done on adults with varying symptoms that can lead to heart disease, including elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure and erratic blood sugar levels, etc. were randomly assigned a diet that included either chicken noodle soup or a half-cup of pinto beans (served in soup or a salad) each day. Twelve weeks later, the group consuming beans showed improved cholesterol levels, by as much as 8%. That’s huge!


This simply piggybacks on the results from a 19-year study revealing people that ate beans often (four or more times a week), had a 22% reduced risk of developing heart disease.


What’s up with beans?


Soluble fiber. It doesn’t sound sexy but the soluble fiber in beans helps bind cholesterol and prevents absorption by the gut. And as the fiber ferments (in the gut), it helps change short-chain fatty acids so cholesterol formation is inhibited.  (Ironically, this same fermentation is the thing that causes us to become ‘musical’ when we eat beans…if you get my drift.)


Beans are more than just their fiber though. Rich in heart-protective compounds like flavonoids, which help inhibit the adhesion of platelets in the blood, beans help reduce our risk for heart attack and stroke.


The bad news is that Americans don’t love their beans, eating only about six pounds per person per year (as opposed to 270 pounds of meat). Yikes! Is it because beans are considered the food of peasants? Is it because we don’t know how to cook them and they like to take their time to simmer to perfection? It can’t be the flavor because when cooked well, beans are about as delicious as delicious gets.


It’s not like they are boring either. Called legumes by botanists, there are so many varieties to choose from and all benefit heart health. From azuki to black beans; black-eyed peas to fava beans; chickpeas to kidney beans; lentils to cannellini beans; lima beans to navy beans, pinto beans to soy beans, there are more bean varieties than you have time to cook them in this lifetime.

A great source of protein and complex carbohydrates, beans are low in fat, high in fiber, low in calories and nutrient dense, providing us with essential vitamins and minerals. Just look at my two favorite heart health rock stars, lentils and cannellini beans. Their nutrient profile is breathtaking.


As many of you know, I am obsessed with all things lentil. Not only yummy, they are loaded with Vitamins B1 and B6, protein, fiber, niacin, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and zinc. Lentils cook quickly and do not require (or desire) soaking. They freeze beautifully after cooking; they can be used in soups, salads, pates, casseroles or cooked with whole grains. There are lots of varieties to choose from so even in my obsession with them, I can enjoy a different lentil as often as I choose to cook them, from red to green, brown, yellow, baby, LuPuy, black and Umbrian.


Cannellini beans or white kidney beans cook into the creamiest, most sensual soups and stews imaginable. Rich in Vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate) and low in fat, white kidney beans, a staple of Italian cuisine, could be the reason only 18% of deaths in Italy are the result of heart disease (as opposed to more than 25% for Americans). The Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that if we took in all the essential daily value of folate, the risk of heart attacks would drop by 10-11% annually (as homocysteine levels would be lower).  FYI: a 1-cup serving of these creamy white beans provides more than 50% of the folate we need. How’s that for sexy?


Now that you know the facts about beans, what’s holding you back from diving in and enjoying them? What’s that? Oh…the gas. Let’s fix that right now.


What we experience as gas is created because our digestive enzymes can’t break down the fiber and short-chain sugar molecules (oligosaccharides) present in these little bundles of protein. But the billions of bacteria in our intestines can…which creates gas in the process. Ah, irony…


What do we do? Rinse beans very well before cooking. Soak them if you like, but not for longer than an hour or two (you lose enzymes with over-soaking). Drain away the soaking water and cook your beans in fresh water.


Another tip is to bring them to the boil without a lid which allows some of the gaseous bubbles to cook away. Once they boil, cover and cook until tender. The more tender the bean, the easier they will be to digest. ‘Al dente’ beans will get you every time!


Finally, add a bay leaf or a small piece of a sea veggie called kombu (kelp) to your beans as they cook. Both contain compounds that help us digest the fiber and protein that can create gas.


If you’re new to beans, choose from varieties that seem to be less of wind problem than others: lentils, cannellini, azuki, split peas all cook relatively quickly and become very tender, making them easier to digest. Eat them regularly; chew them well (so your saliva can help break them down) and in no time, you’ll be a pro bean eater.


Can you use canned beans to save time? Sure, but go with organic where you can and rinse them really well before using in any recipe to avoid digestive upset. The water in the cans is very stale and can cause gas.


In the end, making beans a regular part of our diet may result in a wee bit of tummy discomfort at first but with good cooking and some serious chewing they bring a wealth of wellness to our hearts.


So the beat can go on…and on…and on.