Beans: The Undervalued Superfood

What have you ‘bean’ waiting for? Why beans should be a staple in your pantry.

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We've all heard the expression "shop the perimeter of the store." But if you skip the middle, you're missing out on a wealth of wholesome, delicious food choices. Your supermarket shelves are filled with hidden treasures that you shouldn't pass up. Like beans, one of the most neglected and under-valued items.

Beans provide myriad health benefits, and they fit into several different food groups: although they are rich in complex carbs like breads and starches, as a plant-based food, they feel right at home in the vegetable group, offering an array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, like their veggie companions. They can also hold their own in the protein group, supplying protein aplenty. Unlike some other members of this group, beans provide little to no fat and are cholesterol-free. In fact, beans actually lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels instead of potentially causing them to increase, as some animal proteins have been shown to do.

Though they've been around for centuries, beans are a modern-day superfood. Why? Let's count the ways.

They are heart-helpers. Beans are "heart healthy" because they contain an abundance of soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. If you prefer canned beans, you can ditch up to 40 percent of the sodium by rinsing them in water.

They are low in fat. Most beans are about 2 to 3 percent fat, and contain no cholesterol, unless they're processed or prepared with other ingredients, such as lard. (Check labels to see what else may be in the package or can.)

They pack protein. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say we should be eating more plant proteins. About ½ cup of beans provides 7 grams of protein, the same amount as in 1 ounce of chicken, meat, or fish. Vegetarians, vegans, and individuals who seldom eat meat, poultry, or fish could count on beans as an alternative choice.

They balance blood sugar. With a low glycemic index, beans contain a beautiful blend of complex carbohydrates and protein. Because of this, beans are digested slowly, which helps keep blood glucose stable, and may curtail fatigue and irritability.

• They cut cancer risk. Scientists recommend that adults consume 3 cups of beans per week to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, like cancer. That owes to their abundance of fiber and antioxidants.

They will move you. Filled with fiber, beans can promote regularity by preventing constipation. To maximize your meal, be sure to accompany high-fiber foods with ample fluids, like still or sparkling water. Weighing in at 5 to 8 grams of fiber per 100 grams (3 ounces), beans are ideal for those who are sensitive to gluten, a natural protein found in products containing wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats. If you do have food allergies, however, check the food label or contact the manufacturer to be sure the product is safe.

They'll satisfy you. Because beans are metabolized more slowly than other complex carbs, they may aid in weight loss by keeping us feeling full without being excessively high in calories.

They're convenient. Canned, frozen, or dry, beans are a breeze to purchase, prepare, and store. They even come in flour form.

They are wallet-friendly. Beans can are the least expensive source of protein, especially when compared to fresh meat.

They are nutrient-rich. Aside from protein, complex carbs, and fiber, beans contain a powerhouse of nutrients including antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, such as copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans refer to many of these important nutrients as "shortfall nutrients," meaning most of us aren't getting enough of them. Beans can help you step up to a more complete plate.

They're versatile. They can be incorporated into a main dish (chili), side dish (rice and beans), appetizer (soup), or snack (dip). It's easy to be creative when you have kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas, and lentils in your pantry. Take advantage of their various shapes, sizes, and colors when planning meals.

What's your favorite way to prepare beans?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.