Thursday, December 10, 2015

Beans: The Unsung Heroes

I am constantly amazed at how little print is dedicated to encouraging people to eat more beans.  With that in mind I decided to rewrite a post I wrote in honor of the lowly bean back in 2009.  It seems to me that beans are an unsung hero.  Oh, they are there in all the lists, but seldom talked or written about, at least in comparison to the extensive conversations about omega-3 fatty acids in fish and walnuts (and purslane and flax), the monounsaturated fats in olive oil, and even less billing than nuts and seeds, somewhat related distant cousins. Even chocolate gets higher billing these days prominently displaying its heart-healthy flavonoids   But the nutritional powerhouse of beans?  Hardly a wink and a nod.

So here is my attempt at raising the lowly bean into the national conversation and giving them hopefully more than their 10 minutes of fame.

Some of the simplest things in life can give us so much in return.  Such is the case for a simple substitution I have been making in a meatloaf recipe for 20 years--so simple, in fact, that it's easy to overlook as one of the best nutritional changes you can make to your family's diet. Just prepare the meatloaf recipe your family may have already come to know and love, but substitute 1/4 - 1/2 of the meat in the recipe with beans. I just chop a mixture of beans (usually whatever I have left over from making chili or burritos during the week--often a mixture of pinto beans, black beans and/or red kidney beans) with either ketchup, tomato sauce, or salsa (whatever the meatloaf recipe calls for or your taste desires) in my handy little $20 mini chopper.

The benefits of replacing some of the meat with beans are evident, but are worth enumerating here:

1. Beans are an excellent source of protein, so replacing some of the meat with beans does not diminish the value of the protein in the meal. In fact, replacing animal protein with vegetable protein improves the health score of this meal for several reasons. First of all, animal protein (but not plant) is linked with saturated fat (which increases LDL-cholesterol) and cholesterol. In contrast, the soluble fiber in beans lowers cholesterol. Second, homocysteine levels in blood (a by-product of animal protein breakdown) have been associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Third, strong evidence has accumulated indicating harmful "meat factors" promote cancer. Fourth, high animal protein diets (but not plant) increase urinary calcium losses, contributing to osteoporosis.

2. Beans are one of the best sources of fiber, containing both soluble and insoluble fiber. Since fiber is only found in plant foods, replacing some of the meat with beans adds fiber to an otherwise fiberless dish. Soluble fiber helps reduce cholesterol and maintain healthy blood glucose levels. Insoluble fiber increases the transit time of food through the digestive tract, promoting a healthier digestive system, and may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.

3. Beans are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates of low to moderate glycemic index, providing an excellent increased source of energy from the meal.

4. Beans are a good source of calcium (for bones, teeth and muscle-nerve function), potassium (to help reduce blood pressure), folate (a B vitamin important for proper cell development in the fetus and homocysteine breakdown in adults).

5. Beans are less expensive! In this tough economic climate, don't overlook beans as a rather unappreciated jewel to help stretch the budget.

Oh, and did I mention they passed the "taste test" of my 3 boys with flying colors?

Once you try this recipe you may find yourself "beaning" other recipes too. For example, I gave "bean balls" a try on all 3 of my children when they were very young, and again all 3 liked them. I just added beans to the meatball recipe mix (which included onion, pepper and parsley--you can even add some Parmesan cheese to the mix).

Start "beaning" today and begin to reap several rewards. In fact, why not share this simple and inexpensive idea with others and start a national "beaning" fad, a small step that can have a big impact on the physical health of the nation while helping people to stretch their budgets.

Additional beans can be added in a variety of ways all year long.  With the cooler weather approaching you can serve more chili and even throw in an extra can of beans.  In the summer add some garbanzo beans on top of salads (of course you can add them in winter too!).  And to increase your family's intake of both vegetables and beans try this simple tasty hummus recipe (made with chickpeas) and keep a bag of carrots on hand.

I am actually quite surprised at the relative lack of emphasis on beans given the boost they can give not only to the diet but also to the budget.  In fact I cannot think of a more nutrient-dense food for the money!

I would love to hear about alternative ways that people come up with to "mush" beans into recipes or add beans to dishes.  Please share your ideas with others on this blog.

Happy "beaning"!


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Best Diets 2015

In it's fifth year of presenting "best diets" of the year, the U.S. News & World Report once again published it's Best Diets 2015, and once again the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension Diet) was rated #1 Best Diet out of 35 of the most popular diets evaluated by a panel of nutrition experts.

As you can see from a previous N.E.W. LIFE blog post, I concur wholeheartedly!   The U.S. News & World Report editors affirm what I wrote--the benefits of the DASH Diet are not just for people with high blood pressure.

U.S. News & World Report provides a very handy evaluation of the top diets.  The fact is--and most people already know this--most diets don't work and some are even harmful.  But it can take a master's degree and a whole lot of time to wade through all the information (and much hype) and discern what is the best dietary recommendation.  Some things should be apparent to most people--eat more plant, less animal (though even that is not "apparent" wisdom in the world of diets anymore), more veggies, less animal fat, less processed food.  Yet the work of the U.S. News & World Report editors helps the lay public tremendously.

The editors and reporters spent months researching medical journals, government reports and other resources to winnow certain diets from the list and to rank the remaining diets, and further explain how the diets work, determine whether the claims add up, scrutinize for possible health risks, and evaluate what it's like to actually live on the diet.  Additionally, a very notable and lengthy panel of nationally recognized experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes and heart disease reviewed the editors' work and added their own evaluations regarding ease of following the diet, ability to produce weight loss and keep it off, nutritional completeness, safety, and potential for preventing and managing diabetes and heart disease.

The DASH Diet, issued by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), an agency of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, is proven to lower blood pressure.  The diet emphasizes fruits (4-6/day, depending on body weight), vegetables (3-6 servings/day), nuts (approximately a handful of nuts most days of the week) and fat-reduced milk products, and includes whole grain products, fish and poultry.  The diet is low in saturated fat (6%), cholesterol (150 mg), and total fat (27%) and is lower in lean meat, sweets, added sugars, and sugar-containing beverages than the typical American diet.  The eating plan is rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein and fiber.  Studies conducted by scientists supported by NHLBI and performed at 4 major medical centers found that the DASH Diet significantly reduces blood pressure.  The results were dramatic and fast, achieving reduced blood pressure within 2 weeks.  Even a modified plan that just added more fruits and vegetables to a typical American diet reduced blood pressure.  Another benefit of eating the DASH eating plan is that it reduces (bad) LDL cholesterol, further reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease.  Important note:  If you take medication to control high blood pressure, do not stop using it.  Follow the DASH eating plan and talk with your doctor about your medication treatment--it will very likely need to be adjusted, soon!

To learn more about the DASH Diet (and hypertension) take a moment to read the previous blog.  Hypertension (high blood pressure) affects about 1 out of every 3 American adults (an estimated 70 million Americans) and another nearly 1 out of 3 American adults have prehypertension.  High blood pressure is dangerous because it makes the heart work too hard, and the high force of the blood flow can harm arteries and organs such as the heart, kidneys, brain, and eyes.  If uncontrolled, it can lead to heart and kidney disease, stroke, blindness and early death.  You are more likely to be told your blood pressure is too high as you get older because your blood vessels become stiffer with age.
The hypertension-reducing DASH Diet is similar to the health-supporting Mediterranean Diet and the metabolic syndrome-preventing Syndrome X Diet discussed in previous blog entries.  All are based on the same idea--more plant, less animal food.  While they approach the healthy diet from different perspectives (reducing hypertension, a healthy culture, resolving metabolic syndrome) they really are all quite similar in composition.  The good news is there is not one diet for heart disease, one diet for cancer, one diet for diabetes, etc.  A healthy diet has significant impact on our overall health, and all of the public health organizations reflect that truth in their dietary recommendations.  The American Heart Association, National Cancer Institute, American Diabetes Association, Dietary Guidelines for Americans and others have always had variable but similar recommendations, but in recent years they have all become the same: eat a plant-based monounsaturated fat-rich diet based on whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables with small portions of lean meat, poultry and dairy, generous amounts of fish (3-4x/week) and olive oil to prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, intestinal disease and more.  What always has been, still is, and always will be an optimal diet.  It is not going to change—it is only our rather limited understanding that has been changing over the years.  That said, the DASH Diet is lower in fat (27% total fat, with 6% saturated fat) than the traditional Mediterranean Diet (which can range from less than 25 percent to over 35 percent of energy, though the saturated fat is similarly 7 to 8 percent of energy).  DASH is also lower in fat than the 40% fat reported in the landmark 7 Countries Study and which is recommended by the highly-respected Dr. Gerald Reaven who discovered the metabolic syndrome which informed the dietary recommendations of the National Cholesterol Education Program's Adult Treatment Panel III Report, the "gold standard" for cholesterol-lowering recommendations in the U.S.

Kudos to U.S. News & World Report for its exhaustive work and for continuing to get the word out about the DASH Diet.

Healthy, blessed holidays and New Year!
Diane Preves, M.S., R.D.

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