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"!


Banner Image Credit: bryljaev / 123RF Stock Photo.

Background Image Credit: bryljaev / 123RF Stock Photo.