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Ranking Beans (and Legumes) by How Healthy They Are

Garbanzo? Pinto? Great Northern? Which has always bean the healthiest option?

Beans, beans, the musical fruit!
The more you eat, the more you… evolve into the pinnacle of human existence?

This insight is according to Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who waxed poetic about beans and legumes during our recent ranking of meat alternatives. “These, of course, are all-natural, full of healthy protein and fiber and contain no added salt,” Hunnes explained, adding that beans and legumes also have a super low carbon footprint. “One hundred grams of beans have around 21 grams of protein (some have more, some have slightly less), whereas 100 grams of chicken has 30 grams. So for anyone concerned about protein content, beans and legumes (pulses, as they’re called in other countries) are great.”

The thing is, there are countless kinds of beans and legumes, some of which are much healthier than others. So I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank a whole bunch by how healthy they are — from topnotch to not worth the gassiness.

Before diving into the ranking, though, Friedman wants to address the whole beans-make-you-fart thing. “Beans contain a sugar called an oligosaccharide, and the human body doesn’t produce the enzyme to fully break it down,” he explains. “When beans get to the colon, the gut bacteria begins to ferment these sugars, which produces gas. After the bacteria digest the oligosaccharides, several types of gases are produced, including some odorless ones, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and the foul-smelling, eye-watering gas methane.”

“If you want to avoid flatulence from beans,” Friedman continues, “the commercial product Beano is a great option. It contains the enzyme α-galactosidase, derived from the fungus Aspergillus niger. When consumed, this enzyme breaks down the oligosaccharides before they reach the intestines, thereby preventing the production of gas. You can also combat getting gas from eating beans by adding digestive spices, like ginger, turmeric, fennel or asafetida. These make beans more digestible and won’t cause the wallpaper in the dining room to curl up.”

Good stuff! Now snag some Beano, and come along.

1) Black Beans: “The number one choice for cardiovascular health is black beans,” Friedman says. “They contain quercetin and saponins, which help protect the heart. Quercetin is a natural anti-inflammatory that helps reduce the risk of plaquing of the arteries — it also protects against damage caused by low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Meanwhile, the saponins found in black beans help lower blood lipid and blood cholesterol levels, which protects the valves of the heart. Clinical studies have suggested that saponins also decrease cancer risks.”

Black means are also nutritional powerhouses. “Black beans are chock-full of calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper and zinc, all of which contribute to building and maintaining bone structure and strength,” says Friedman. “When it comes to gut health, black beans aid in preventing constipation and provide fuel for the healthy bacteria in the colon. The high fiber content of black beans also help reduce cholesterol levels.  Plus, black beans are a great option if you want to lose weight and reduce your waist circumference.”

Perhaps most impressive, though, is the ability black beans have to reduce the development of cancer. “Black beans have been shown to reduce the risk of certain types of cancers due to their powerful flavonoids,” Friedman explains. “These compounds are color-producing phytonutrient pigments that function as antioxidants in the body to fight disease and the formation of free radicals — the level of flavonoids in a 100-gram serving of black beans provides about 10 times the amount found in a similar serving of oranges. In fact, research published in 2015 analyzed antioxidant properties in various foods that can help fight intestinal cancer, and black beans were shown to have the most potent antioxidant properties.”

Black beans also contain alpha-linolenic acid,” Friedman continues, “which is necessary for a healthy brain. These powerful beans supply approximately 180 milligrams of alpha-linolenic acid per cup, and increasing your alpha-linolenic acid consumption may help prevent and treat heart conditions, including atherosclerosis, the hardening of blood vessels.”

2) Garbanzo Beans: Garbanzo Beans, also called chickpeas, have been a popular part of traditional diets for over 7,500 years,” Friedman explains. “Garbanzo beans have also been a staple for some of the healthiest and longest-living populations on the planet.”

These are a particularly good option for vegetarians and vegans. “Garbanzo beans are an excellent source of protein, making them an excellent choice for individuals who avoid animal products,” Friedman confirms. “Unlike ‘slow carbs,’ which spike blood sugar and then lead to a crash, garbanzo beans are complex carbs, which provide sustained energy when consumed — this makes garbanzo beans a great option for diabetics and those on low-carb diets.”

Similar to black beans, garbanzo beans also have the capacity to curtail your waistline. “The protein and gut-friendly fiber content in garbanzo beans increases levels of appetite-reducing hormones in the body, which lowers our caloric intake,” says Friedman. “Research shows those who eat garbanzo beans regularly are 53 percent less likely to be obese and have a lower body mass index and waist circumference compared to those who don’t eat them. Likewise, the Journal of Food Science and Technology published research showing that consuming garbanzos makes people feel fuller and eat less junk food.”

As for adding these to your diet, Friedman says, “Garbanzo beans are commonly eaten on top of salads or as hummus — just add tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. You can make your own hummus. It’s super easy.”

3) Kidney Beans: “The colorful red pigment of kidney beans is mainly due to a flavonoid called anthocyanin,” Friedman explains. “This is a powerful antioxidant that fights the effects of aging and oxidative stress.”

Again, kidney beans can help you lose weight. “These beans are great for those trying to lose weight, because they’re very low in calories and extremely dense in fiber,” Friedman says. “This makes for a perfect combination for helping you consume fewer calories, while also keeping you fuller for longer. Similarly, kidney beans significantly reduce blood sugar spikes, decrease body weight and help you maintain a lean body mass.”

Kidney beans are also great for your colon. “Kidney beans may reduce the risk of colon cancer,” says Friedman. “These powerful red beans are super rich in protein, too — just 3.5 ounces of boiled kidney beans offers nine grams of protein, accounting for 27 percent of your total calorie content.” 

“Kidney beans are a great source of vitamin B1, too,” Friedman continues, “which contributes greatly to healthy cognitive functions. This also helps in synthesizing acetylcholine — an important neurotransmitter — which boosts concentration and memory. The manganese in kidney beans works as a cofactor (or helper) as well in development, reproduction, energy production, immune response and the regulation of brain activity.”

Not to mention, these beans really are good for your heart. “Kidney beans offer a great source of folate, which helps to lower the body’s level of homocysteine,” explains Friedman. “This is an amino acid in the blood mostly derived from eating meat, and high homocysteine levels cause an increased risk of heart disease. So consumption of foods high in folate can significantly reduce the number of heart attacks suffered by Americans each year.”

Friedman emphasizes the importance of cooking these beans correctly, though. “Be sure to thoroughly cook your kidney beans,” he says. “Raw and improperly cooked beans can harbor anti-nutrients, which are substances that reduce the nutritional value by impairing nutrient absorption in your digestive tract.”

4) Pinto Beans: Pinto beans are a rich source of antioxidants called polyphenols, which research shows may prevent some forms of cancer,” Friedman says. “Pinto beans also contain kaempferol, a potent flavonoid known for helping reduce inflammation and fighting off free radicals. In fact, eating a half cup of pinto beans per day for eight weeks can significantly reduce both total cholesterol and (bad) LDL blood cholesterol.”

Once again, too, we see a heart-boosting effect from these beans. “Research from the Journal of American College of Nutrition shows consuming pinto beans reduces biomarkers for heart attack and stroke,” explains Friedman. “Diabetics may also benefit from consuming pinto beans, because they help balance blood sugar levels. They also increase satiety and help curb your appetite.”

Friedman likewise points me toward a study that shows that pinto beans can increase the production of propionate, a short-chain fatty acid that improves gut health and may play a role in combating obesity

Turning pinto beans into refried beans, however, reduces their healthiness. “Refried pinto beans are typically prepared by infusing them with moisture — simmering, stewing or pressure cooking — mashing them into a paste and then frying them with lard (or fat from a pig, which isn’t the healthiest choice).”

5) Navy Beans: “Navy beans got their name because they were once a staple of sailor diets in the U.S. Navy,” Friedman explains. “They’re also sometimes called Boston Beans, because they’re used in the flagship dish, Boston Baked Beans.”

Like many other entries on this list, these beans are also high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. “Navy beans are a good source of both manganese and copper, which are essential cofactors of a key oxidative enzyme called superoxide dismutase,” Friedman says. “This enzyme disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria, the energy production factories within our cells. Copper is also necessary for the activity of lysyl oxidase, an enzyme involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, both of which provide the ground substance and flexibility in blood vessels, bones and joints. The copper found in navy beans may also help reduce wrinkles, since copper helps the body produce collagen, a protein that gives skin strength and elasticity.”

Friedman also mentions that navy beans contain loads of folate, a B vitamin responsible for making red and white blood cells, converting carbs into energy and producing DNA. Navy beans are a shortcut to Thin Town as well. “Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition shows overweight and obese adults who eat five cups of navy beans per week is equivalent to — and in some cases, more affective than — dietary counseling for reducing waist circumference, blood sugar and blood pressure. Navy beans have also been shown to increase higher levels of healthy HDL blood cholesterol in just four weeks.”

Did I mention navy beans are high in vitamins and minerals? “Navy beans offer a good source of magnesium, another heart-healthy mineral,” Friedman says. “Studies show that a deficiency of magnesium isn’t only associated with heart attacks, but that immediately following a heart attack, lack of sufficient magnesium causes free radical injury to the heart. Navy beans are also a great source of potassium, an important electrolyte involved in nerve transmission and the contraction of all muscles, including the heart — a one-cup serving of navy beans provides over 700 milligrams of potassium, making these beans an especially good choice to protect against high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.”

6) Fava Beans: “Fava beans are an excellent source of soluble fiber, protein, folate, manganese, copper and several other micronutrients,” says Friedman. “They’re rich in L-dopa, which your body converts to dopamine. Since Parkinson’s disease is characterized by low dopamine levels, eating fava beans has been shown to help relieve symptoms — one study found that those with Parkinson’s disease who ate 1.5 cups of fava beans after 12 hours without medication experienced a comparable positive effect on blood dopamine levels and motor function as that caused by L-dopa drugs.”

Similar to navy beans, fava beans are a solid source of folate, which Friedman characterizes as “a nutrient that promotes proper brain and spinal cord development in infants, and in adults, folate helps with the formation of red blood cells, as well as healthy cellular growth and function.”

Once again, fava beans aid in the fight against cancer. “Fava beans contain compounds that have been shown to increase the powerful antioxidant glutathione, which reduces oxidative stress,” Friedman says. “High levels of oxidative stress may be a precursor to multiple diseases, including diabetes, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.”

In addition to being high in manganese and copper, Friedman notes that fava beans are particularly high in iron, which he says “is needed to produce hemoglobin, the protein that enables your red blood cells to carry oxygen through your body — an iron deficiency can lead to anemia, characterized by fatigue, weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath.”

They’re also great with liver.

7) Cannellini Beans: “Cannellini beans, commonly known as white kidney beans, are a great source of both soluble and insoluble fiber — 200 grams of cooked cannellini beans offers 50 percent of your daily recommended intake of dietary fiber,” says Friedman. “Insoluble fiber helps prevent digestive problems, like irritable bowel syndrome, and soluble fiber removes toxins from the body by binding to cholesterol containing bile.”

These beans also contain plenty of nutrition, without much of the bad stuff. “Cannellini beans are fat-free and an excellent source of iron, folate and magnesium,” Freidman says. “One quarter-cup serving contains 11 grams of protein.”

“Cannellini beans also support healthy cholesterol levels, thereby diminishing a heart attack risk,” Friedman continues. “These beans contain folic acid, which helps lower your homocysteine levels — homocysteine is a type of amino acid that’s naturally made by the body. At high levels, it can damage the lining of arteries and cause blood clotting, which can raise your risk for coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes. But researchers say a daily dose of folic acid could reduce a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke by about 20 percent.”

As with most beans, we see more cancer-reducing potential with cannellini beans. “When it comes to cancer prevention, cannellini beans are a great choice,” confirms Friedman. “Research shows people who consume white kidney beans three times a week reduce their risk of developing polyps — small growths in the lining of the bowel that can become cancerous — by a third. Cannellini beans can also make your mind sharp, because they’re a great source of thiamine (vitamin B1) — this nutrient improves the function of brain cells and enhances cognition. Thiamine also plays a role in the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter required for memory.”

8) Lima Beans: “Lima beans are often called butter beans because of their starchy — yet buttery — texture,” Friedman says. “They’re an excellent source of dietary fiber, folate, copper and manganese.”

These make a good pre-workout meal, according to Friedman. “Lima beans are naturally low in calories, but full of healthy complex carbohydrates,” he explains. “Most of the carbs found in lima beans come from starch — there are about 11 grams of starch in a single serving — and starch gives the body quick energy, making lima beans a great pre-exercise meal for athletes.”

Lima beans are also diabetic-friendly. “Lima beans contain seven grams of fiber per serving,” says Friedman. “Their fiber content prevents blood sugar spikes, making them a great option for diabetics, those with insulin resistance or hypoglycemia. An evaluation of the nutritional value of legumes published in the journal Obesity Reviews determined that replacing energy-dense foods with lima beans has been shown to have beneficial effects on the prevention and management of obesity and related disorders, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”

In a roundabout way, lima beans might be able to ward off the dreaded wine headaches as well. “Lima beans are an excellent source of the trace mineral molybdenum, an integral component of the enzyme sulfite oxidase, which is responsible for detoxifying sulfites,” Friedman explains. “Sulfites are preservatives commonly added to prepared foods, like delicatessen salads. Wine also contains sulfites, which is why so many people get a headache after drinking it — people that are sensitive to sulfites may experience rapid heartbeats, headaches or disorientation. However, adding lima beans to your meal can protect you from the negative effects of sulfites.”

Similar to fava beans, lima beans are also a great source of iron, which is always nice.

9) Great Northern Beans: “Great northern beans are an excellent source of dietary fiber, supplying 12 grams per cup, which is 50 percent of the recommended daily value,” Friedman says. “They contain considerable amounts of both types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and therefore deliver all of the associated health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels, blood sugar balancing, regulating bowel movements and so on. Their fiber content also helps make you feel fuller longer, so you eat less.”

They’re also super high in magnesium. “Magnesium is an important mineral that performs a number of key functions in the body,” Friedman explains. “It maintains the electrical impulses across nerve and muscle membranes, and it helps people handle stress better. It’s also necessary for healthy bones.”

What makes these northern beans especially great is their high protein content. “Incorporating more great northern beans into your diet also helps you meet your daily protein needs,” says Friedman. “One serving of great northern beans gives you 15 grams of protein.”

10) Soybeans: “In my book, Food Sanity, I devoted an entire chapter to the research I’ve conducted on soy,” Friedman says. “I’ll first say, soybeans do contain healthful vitamins and minerals, however, after carefully reviewing over a thousand studies published on soy, I strongly believe the risks of consuming unfermented soy products far outweigh any possible benefits — only fermented soy is good for us.”

“For centuries, Asians have enjoyed fermented soy products, such as natto, tempeh and soy sauce and reaped their many health benefits,” Friedman continues. “However, the majority of soybeans eaten in American are unfermented, and thousands of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders and infertility — even cancer and heart disease.”

To emphasize this, Friedman dives into the history of soy. “Soy was originally used by modern Western populations as an industrial product to manufacture paints and shock-absorber fluids,” he recounts. “In fact, it was Henry Ford in 1940 who used 120 pounds of soybeans in each Ford car. Ford also developed soy-based plastics, which he used to make a vehicle that he colloquially titled, the ‘Soybean Car.’ 

“Soybeans weren’t considered fit for humans until the Chinese learned to utilize a time-consuming fermentation processes to remove most of the toxins from soy. In comparison, unfermented soybean products commonly sold in American, like tofu (bean curd), soy milk and soy protein powder contain large quantities of natural toxins. In America, high-tech processing methods not only fail to remove the anti-nutrients and toxins that are naturally present in soybeans, but they leave toxic and carcinogenic residues created by the high temperatures, high pressure, alkali and acid baths and petroleum.”

“Also in Asia,” Friedman continues, “soy is primarily used as a condiment or side dish, not eaten as a meal like it is in the U.S. Several chemicals found in soy are considered to be dangerous for human consumption, like phytoestrogens. These are plant estrogens found in abundance in soy that may damage the endocrine system and the thyroid gland, possibly contributing to autoimmune disease.”

To put this into perspective, Friedman pulls out some statistics. “Just two glasses of soy milk per day, over the course of one month, contain enough estrogenic compounds to  change the timing of a woman’s menstrual cycle,” he says. “Looking at worldwide trends, Puerto Rico has the highest known incidence of premature breast development — girls as young as two are developing breasts, and analysis has revealed that most of these children were fed soy-based infant formulas. In adults, soy has been linked to an increased risk of thyroid disease, breast cancer in females and infertility in males.”

Unfermented soy products can also prevent you from reaping the benefits of certain nutrients, according to Friedman. “Soy contains a high level of phytic acid, which binds with — and reduces — the absorption of vital minerals, such as niacin, calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. When soy is soaked or boiled — a common practice in the U.S. — this doesn’t lower the amount of phytic acid. However, when soy is fermented, it removes a lot of phytic acid, and when it’s fermented and fried — a common preparation in Asian cuisines — all the dangerous properties of phytic acid are removed. Scientists are in general agreement that phytic acid contributes to widespread mineral deficiencies among people who eat large amounts of soybeans.”

One thing worth noting here, however, is that studies continue to present conflicting ideas about soy — fermented or otherwise — and while there are certainly some reasons to be concerned about consuming excessive amounts of soy (like, a lot of freaking soy), researchers generally agree that consuming it several times a week is likely to result in health benefits, especially when consumed as an alternative to meat. Still, sticking with fermented soy products when possible might not be a bad idea.

Well, I gotta go now — I have an appointment with a big bowl of black beans. It’s bean real.