Improve your heart health without drugs by adding one serving of beans, chickpeas, lentils, or peas to your daily diet.

One serving a day of beans, chickpeas, lentils, or peas could lower your cholesterol level as well as your risk of heart disease, according to new research. These low-cost sources of plant protein—known as “pulses”—are dietary staples in other countries, but fall relatively low on the list of the typical North American diet.

“We have a lot of room in our diets for increasing our pulse intake to derive cardiovascular benefits,” said study author Dr. John Sievenpiper of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, in a press release. “Pulses already play a role in many traditional cuisines, including Mediterranean and South Asian. As an added bonus, they’re inexpensive. Since many pulses are grown in North America, it’s also an opportunity to buy and eat locally and support our farmers.”

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In the new research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sievenpiper’s team reviewed 26 previous studies that tracked a total of 1,037 mainly middle-aged people.

The researchers found that one serving a day of pulses could lower LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol by as much as five percent. This translates to a five to six percent decreased risk of major cardiovascular events, including heart attack and stroke.

One serving of pulses is about three-quarters of a cup. Most Americans fall far short of that, eating on average less than half a serving per day.

The main side effects of eating more beans and other pulses are bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. However, these symptoms were seen to subside over the course of the studies.

Longer and more rigorous trials are still needed, the researchers said, in order to prove the benefits of pulses for LDL cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease.

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Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas have many benefits beyond lowering cholesterol. According to registered dietitian and diabetes educator Susan Weiner, pulses provide:

  • an excellent source of protein, especially when paired with whole grains like quinoa or brown rice that contain amino acids not found in pulses.
  • important vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, folate, and vitamin B-6.
  • phytonutrients, a special class of compounds produced by plants that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
  • a healthy amount of fiber, which, Weiner says, “can also help you stay fuller longer, so you may consume fewer calories and lose weight.”

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If you’re new to eating beans and other pulses, Weiner recommends that you “start by adding beans to some of your favorite recipes. Try a vegetarian chili recipe over quinoa. If you’re pressed for time, check out a slow-cooker recipe, where you can also add plenty of vegetables.”

Buying dry pulses and cooking them at home is the most cost-effective way to add them to your diet. Soak chickpeas overnight before cooking (lentils and peas don’t require soaking). If you are using canned pulses, rinse them before cooking to remove salt added during the canning process.

Because beans take on the flavors of spices in many dishes and have a “hearty” texture, they can replace—or reduce—animal sources of protein in many recipes.

“I love hummus and chili,” says Weiner. “Dip raw veggies (of all different colors like red peppers, yellow carrots, and green broccoli) in hummus for a tasty snack. Add beans to your side dishes or soups.”

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