Gut health. Immune support. Better digestion. Few foods can match the variety of health benefits you get from legumes. And studies agree people who eat the most legumes (that’s beans, lentils and peas) have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and overall mortality.
Need we say more? Here are eight science-backed reasons to love legumes.
1. They promote smooth digestion
Being backed up isn’t just uncomfortable – it can be dangerous. Research links chronic constipation with an increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
In order to keep food moving smoothly through your digestive system, turn to beans. Legumes are loaded with fiber, to encourage regular bowel movements, prevent constipation and keep your colon happily moving along. One cup of navy beans has an impressive 19 grams of fiber, about 70 percent of the daily recommendation and almost five times as much as a cup of brown rice.
2. They’re packed with more nutrients than you might realize
Beans and lentils are loaded with an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, phosphorous, potassium and B vitamins. Some varieties, especially darker-colored legumes, are also loaded with disease-preventive antioxidants. In one comprehensive study of antioxidant-rich foods, red beans, kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans topped the list.
3. They’re an outstanding source of meat-free protein
Beans and legumes like lentils are low in fat and high in clean protein. Most varieties have 15 to 20 grams per cup – as much as one hamburger patty and three times as much as one egg.
Yet they offer more than just your basic protein. Legume proteins are precursors of bioactive components that have anti-inflammatory activity, and studies link peptides derived from legume protein with reduced markers of inflammation.
4. They keep your gut in tip-top shape
Legumes are rich in resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that escapes digestion in the small intestine and ferments in the large intestine. As resistant starch ferments, it acts as a prebiotic, feeding beneficial bacteria in the gut, increasing microbial diversity, enhancing gut function and protecting against colonization of pathogenic bacteria. The fermentation process also produces butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), compounds that lower inflammation in the gut.
And speaking of bellies: some research links a diet high in legumes with reductions in waist circumference.
5. They help your immune system work better
By increasing gut microbial diversity, legumes support a robust immune response. Beneficial bacteria in the intestines play a critical role in the immune system’s functioning, protecting against pathogens and infection. Studies link imbalances in the microbiome with a number of immune-mediated disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatic diseases, metabolic syndrome and neurodegenerative disorders.
6. They may defend against cancer
An increased intake of beans (or legumes in general) is linked with a decreased risk of stomach, colorectal, kidney and other cancers, and research suggests a higher consumption of legumes reduces overall cancer mortality.
Butyrate produced by the fermentation of resistant starch also has anti-cancer effects, inhibiting cancer cell proliferation and promoting apoptosis (cancer cell death).
7. They balance blood sugar
Fiber-rich legumes have positive effects on blood glucose levels and insulin regulation. Research links increased consumption of beans with greater improvements in glycemic control and a lower risk of diabetes. In one study, eating half a cup of lentils or beans every day for four weeks significantly reduced fasting blood glucose and insulin levels, and a meta-analysis of 19 clinical trials found legumes markedly lowered blood sugar in both diabetic and non-diabetic study participants.
8. They protect your ticker
The old ditty is true: beans really are good for your heart. A number of studies show eating beans, lentils, peas and other legumes lessen the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure. Research suggests eating more beans can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 10 percent. Legumes also reduce levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Are there any downsides to eating beans?
In spite of their many attributes, beans aren’t beyond reproach. Most are high in FODMAPS, poorly absorbed carbohydrates that cause significant bloating, gas and distress in people with IBS or other serious digestive problems. But not all beans are bad. Even if you follow a low-FODMAP diet, small amounts of beans and legumes are considered safe, and canned beans are generally lower in these bothersome carbohydrates.
Legumes also contain compounds that can interfere with nutrient absorption, irritate the gut and cause digestive issues. But there’s a fix: the most prominent of these compounds – phytates (phytic acid), lectins, protease inhibitors and saponins – can be reduced or removed. Soaking legumes overnight, then draining and rinsing well before cooking, deactivates phytates, protease inhibitors and saponins. Thoroughly cooking legumes dramatically decreases lectins. Don’t use a slow cooker; the temperature isn’t high enough. Instead, cook beans in a pressure cooker, or boil them on the stovetop.
Fermenting and sprouting most legumes can also reduce or completely remove lectins, saponins and protease inhibitors, especially in soy. Digestive enzyme supplements can also help. Look for a supplement that’s formulated specifically for legumes, or one that contains alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme that breaks down the complex sugars in beans.
And even these troublesome legume compounds have their advantages. Phytic acid is an antioxidant that can bind with cadmium, lead and other heavy metals, preventing their absorption. Studies also suggest foods high in phytic acid may reduce the risk of breast, prostate and colon cancer, and guard against hardening of the arteries. Research shows saponins decrease blood lipids, normalize blood glucose response and protect against cancer, and protease inhibitors may contribute to the anti-cancer benefits of beans.
Discover even more benefits that come with eating different kinds of beans and other legumes, or give a new bean-centric recipe a try:
- 4 Surprising Health Benefits of Black Beans
- Slow-Cooker Beans: The Master Recipe
- 10 Ways with Lentils & Beans
- Spiced Beans & Rice
Featured recipe: Better Baked Beans on Toast