Updated: Jan 16
Beans can be a big component of a plant-based diet, and should be included in all diets as long as they're tolerated. They're sometimes considered a vegetable, however they're actually legumes. The legume family consists of plants that produce a pod with seeds inside. The term "legume" is used to describe the seeds of these plants. Common edible legumes include lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, and peanuts. Beans are a subgroup of the vegetable food group. (Sorry, no cheating, friends—consuming beans does not count toward your daily vegetable recommendations—you still need your leafy greens!) Nutritious and versatile legumes offer unique health benefits in comparison to other plants since they are so high in protein. For this reason, they make a great meat substitute. When you eat beans in place of meat (even if it's once a week!) you're not only replacing the saturated fat found in meat with unsaturated (healthy) fat found in beans, but you're also adding fiber and hundreds of phytonutrients (nutrients specific to plants) that have healing effects on the body.
Common legumes include black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, great northern beans, pinto beans, soy beans, lima beans, azuki beans, lentils, and split peas. The versatility of beans is impressive—they can be added to soups and salads, made into veggie patties, and create falafels, "meatballs," sloppy joe's, chili, brownies, spreads and more! (See more ideas and recipes below.)
Below are 7 reasons why beans play an important part of a healthy diet and tips on how to incorporate them.
1. Beans are an excellent source of fiber.
Beans contain fiber, which is a type of carbohydrate that is not used for energy. Instead it passes through the digestive system whole, helping to improve health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, weight management, and digestive issues. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of fiber is a minimum of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men per day. Beans can help increase your fiber intake tremendously. Check out the short list below to see how beans can easily boost fiber intake.
The fiber content in just 1/2 cooked cup:
black beans, 7 grams
kidney beans, 6 grams
chickpeas, 6 grams
pinto beans, 8 grams
lentils, 8 grams
2. Beans are an incredible source of plant-based protein.
No need to question whether or not you're getting enough protein when beans are incorporated. Beans are a great source of protein on a plant-based or plant forward diet. Protein helps to build and maintain muscle, create collagen, repair tissues, and synthesize enzymes and hormones, just to name a few. The average bean contains about 7-8 grams per ½ cup serving with soybeans containing the most at 15 grams of protein per ½ cup serving.
3. Beans are an excellent source of B vitamins.
While the nutrient profile of all beans is different, beans across the board are high in B vitamins, iron, and zinc. B vitamins support metabolism function and play a role in energy levels.
Specifically, beans are high in the B vitamin, folate also known as vitamin B9. When deficient in folate, health conditions, such as elevated homocysteine (increases risk of heart disease and stroke), neural tube birth defects, and increased risk of cancer can occur. Obtaining folate from whole foods, like beans, is beneficial whereas supplemental folate, in the form of folic acid, has been linked to increased risk of cancer.
4. Beans are an excellent source of plant-based iron.
Beans can be a key source of iron for those who lead a plant based lifestyle. While iron is abundant in beans, a substance called phytic acid is also present, which has been shown to prevent iron absorption in the body. However, there's good news! Soaking your beans for 24 to 48 hours before cooking them can reduce phytic acid by up to 88 percent. This takes a little planning and preparation, but it's simple and increases your body’s ability to absorb iron. See the tips below for cooking dried beans to minimize phytic acid and maximize iron (and other minerals like zinc) absorption.
Pro tip: Pair your beans with a source of Vitamin C to maximize iron absorption. (examples of high vitamin C foods include tomatoes, broccoli, red peppers, citrus)
5. Beans are an excellent source of zinc.
Zinc is another important nutrient in beans that can benefit your overall health. Zinc is a mineral involved with hundreds of enzymes that support nutrient metabolism, immunity, and growth and repair of the body’s tissue. Note that your body does not store zinc, therefore it is important to consume it daily. In relation to immunity, zinc supports a strong immune system by playing a role in cell development, cell communication, and the inflammatory response. Overall, zinc in beans can help reduce your chance of infection and shorten length of infection. Soaking beans also improves the bioavailability of zinc.
6. Beans contain calcium.
Beans are an excellent source of plant-based calcium, which can sometimes be a concern when removing dairy from the diet. However, when including whole plant-based foods and consuming adequate calories, calcium needs can be met from plants alone. Visit 8 Calcium-Rich Plant-Based Foods to learn about more plant foods high in calcium.
7. Beans are affordable.
Beans are an affordable whole food. They can be purchased in a (BPA-free, preferably!) can for $0.99 which equates to $0.28 per ½ cup serving. Beans can also be purchased dry for an average of $1.59 per pounds which equates to $0.24 per ½ cup serving. That's very little cost in exchange for lots of nutrients!
How To Prepare Dry Beans
Starting with dry beans might seem like a little more effort, but it's worth it!
Benefits to starting with dried beans:
They can be less expensive than canned.
If you're purchasing in bulk, less packaging is used with dried beans compared to canned.
You can soak and cook them until very tender which can help reduce phytic acid content (and increase the availability of iron, zinc and calcium) as well as reduce gas-forming compounds.
No extra (unhealthy) additives are added to home-cooked beans. However, adding fresh garlic or garlic powder, ground cumin, and onions can be a great addition during the cooking process.
That said, keeping two or three dried beans as well as a variety of canned beans on hand is always a good idea! When you have time, try cooking from dry and when time is limited, use up those canned beans! Just look for BPA-free cans to avoid plastic chemicals leaching into your beans.
How to soak and cook dried beans:
First, rinse dried beans in a colander and remove any debris or small stones.
Transfer the beans to a large bowl or stockpot. Fill it with clean, filtered water, adding enough so there is two inches of water over top of the beans. Extra water is important since the beans will swell as they soak.
Cover with a towel or lid and let sit for at least 24 hours.
Discard water and rinse before adding water to cook.
Add kombu (a type of sea vegetable), cumin, or fennel to the cooking water.
Once beans are soaked, beans can be boiled or cooked in a pressure cooker or on the stovetop until tender. On average, for every one pound of beans use ten cups of water. Here's a handy guide from Women's Bean Project on how to best prepare beans.
Also, note that lentils and split peas don't require any soaking at all! Add three cups of water for every cup of dried lentils or split peas.