AUTHORITY NUTRITION

The 9 Healthiest Beans and Legumes You Can Eat

Written by Ruairi Robertson, PhD on December 1, 2017

Beans and legumes are the fruits or seeds of a family of plants called Fabaceae. They are commonly eaten around the world and are a rich source of fiber and B vitamins.

They are also a great replacement for meat as a source of vegetarian protein.

Four Bowls of Beans

Beans and legumes have a number of health benefits, including reducing cholesterol, decreasing blood sugar levels and increasing healthy gut bacteria.

Here are nine of the healthiest beans and legumes you can eat, and why they are good for you.

Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a great source of fiber and protein.

Many scientific studies have shown that beans and legumes such as chickpeas can help reduce weight, risk factors for heart disease and potentially even the risk of cancer, especially when they replace red meat in the diet (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

One cup (164 grams) of cooked chickpeas contains roughly (6):

  • Calories: 269
  • Protein: 14.5 grams
  • Fiber: 12.5 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 71% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 84% of the RDI
  • Copper: 29% of the RDI
  • Iron: 26% of the RDI

Chickpeas are particularly beneficial at reducing blood sugar and increasing insulin sensitivity when compared with other high-carb foods (7).

In a study of 19 women, those who ate a meal containing 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of chickpeas had significantly lower blood sugar and insulin levels than those who ate the same amount of white bread or other wheat-containing foods (8).

Similarly, another study of 45 people showed that eating 26 ounces (728 grams) of chickpeas per week for 12 weeks significantly reduced insulin levels (9).

Eating chickpeas may also improve blood cholesterol levels.

A number of studies have shown that chickpeas can reduce both total cholesterol and “bad” low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease (10, 11).

Your gut and the beneficial bacteria within it play an important role in many aspects of your health, so eating foods that contain gut-friendly fiber is extremely beneficial.

A number of studies have shown that diets containing chickpeas may also help improve bowel function and reduce the number of bad bacteria in the intestines (12, 13).

Summary Chickpeas are a great source of fiber and folate, and they’re also low in calories. They can help reduce blood sugar, decrease blood cholesterol and improve gut health.

Lentils are a great source of vegetarian protein and can be great additions to soups and stews. They may also have a number of health benefits (14).

One cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils contains roughly (15):

  • Calories: 230
  • Protein: 17.9 grams
  • Fiber: 15.6 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 90% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 49% of the RDI
  • Copper: 29% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 22% of the RDI

Similar to chickpeas, lentils can help reduce blood sugar compared to other foods.

In a study of 24 men, those who were given pasta and tomato sauce containing lentils ate significantly less during the meal and had lower blood sugar than those who ate the same meal without lentils (16).

Another study of more than 3,000 people found that those with the highest intake of lentils and other legumes had the lowest rates of diabetes (17).

These benefits may be due to the effects lentils have in the gut.

Some studies have shown that lentils benefit gut health by improving bowel function and slowing the rate that the stomach empties, which could help with digestion and prevent spikes in blood sugar (18, 19).

Finally, lentil sprouts may also help heart health by reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol and increasing “good” HDL cholesterol (20).

Summary Lentils are a great source of vegetarian protein and may reduce blood sugar levels compared to some other foods that are high in carbohydrates.

Peas are also a type of legume, and there are a number of different types.

One cup (160 grams) of cooked peas contains roughly (21):

  • Calories: 125
  • Protein: 8.2 grams
  • Fiber: 8.8 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 24% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 22% of the RDI
  • Vitamin K: 48% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 30% of the RDI

Like many other legumes, peas are a great source of fiber and protein. A lot of research has shown pea fiber and protein, which can be used as supplements, to have a number of health benefits.

One study of 23 people who were overweight and had high cholesterol found that eating 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of pea flour per day for 28 days significantly reduced insulin resistance and belly fat, compared to wheat flour (22).

Pea flour and pea fiber have shown similar benefits in other studies by reducing the increase in insulin and blood sugar after a meal, reducing blood triglycerides and increasing feelings of fullness (23, 24, 25).

Because fiber feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut, pea fiber may also improve gut health. One study showed that it can increase stool frequency in elderly people and reduce their use of laxatives (26).

It may also help the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestines, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. These bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, which help promote gut health (27).

Summary Peas are a great source of fiber and protein, which may help reduce blood sugar and insulin resistance. Pea fiber and protein support a healthy gut, as well.

Kidney beans are one of the most commonly consumed beans, and are often eaten with rice. They have a number of health benefits.

One cup (256 grams) of cooked kidney beans contains roughly (28):

  • Calories: 215
  • Protein: 13.4 grams
  • Fiber: 13.6 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 23% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 22% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 20% of the RDI
  • Copper: 17% of the RDI
  • Iron: 17% of the RDI

Foods that are high in fiber, such as kidney beans, can help slow the absorption of sugar into the blood and therefore reduce blood sugar levels.

One study of 17 people with type 2 diabetes found that eating kidney beans with rice significantly reduced the spike in blood sugar after the meal, compared to rice alone (29).

Along with high blood sugar, weight gain is also a risk factor for diabetes and metabolic syndrome, but kidney beans have the potential to reduce these risk factors.

One study showed that an extract from white kidney beans may help reduce body weight and fat mass (30).

Thirty overweight men and women who took the supplement for 30 days lost an average of 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) more weight and significantly more fat mass and waist circumference than those who took a placebo.

Summary Kidney beans contain high amounts of fiber and may help reduce the rise in blood sugar that happens after a meal.

Like many other beans, black beans are a great source of fiber, protein and folate. They are a staple food in Central and South America.

One cup (172 grams) of cooked black beans contains roughly (31):

  • Calories: 227
  • Protein: 15.2 grams
  • Fiber: 15 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 64% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 38% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 30% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 28% of the RDI
  • Iron: 20% of the RDI

Black beans may also help reduce the spike in blood sugar that occurs after eating a meal, which may help reduce the risk of diabetes and weight gain (29).

This beneficial effect is because black beans have a lower glycemic index compared to many other high-carbohydrate foods. This means they cause a smaller rise in blood sugar after a meal.

A couple of studies have shown that if people eat black beans with rice, the beans can reduce this rise in blood sugar compared to when people eat rice alone. Black beans also cause a lower blood sugar rise than bread (32, 33).

SummaryBlack beans are effective at reducing the rise in blood sugar after a meal compared to other high-carb foods, such as rice and bread.

Soybeans are commonly consumed in Asia in a number of different forms, including tofu. They have many different health benefits.

One cup (172 grams) of cooked soybeans contains roughly (34):

  • Calories: 298
  • Protein: 28.6 grams
  • Fiber: 10.3 grams
  • Manganese: 71% of the RDI
  • Iron: 49% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 42% of the RDI
  • Vitamin K: 41% of the RDI
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2): 29% of the RDI
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 23% of the RDI

In addition to these nutrients, soybeans contain high levels of antioxidants called isoflavones, which are responsible for many of their health benefits.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that consuming soybeans and their isoflavones is associated with a reduced risk of cancer.

However, many of these studies are observational, meaning the participants’ diets weren’t controlled, so there could be other factors affecting the risk of cancer.

A large study that combined the results of 21 other studies found that eating high amounts of soybeans was associated with a 15% lower risk of stomach and other gastrointestinal cancers. Soybeans appeared to be especially effective in women (35).

Another study found similar results of soybeans on breast cancer. However, this effect was much smaller and the results were not clear (36).

Many of these benefits may be due to the fact that soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens. This means that they can mimic the effect of estrogen in the body, which tends to decline during menopause.

A large study of 403 postmenopausal women found that taking soy isoflavones for two years, in addition to calcium and vitamin D, significantly reduced the loss of bone density that occurs during menopause (37).

Soy protein and soy phytoestrogens may also help reduce a number of risk factors for heart disease, including blood pressure and blood cholesterol (38, 39).

Summary Soybeans and the antioxidants they contain may help reduce the risk of certain cancers, decrease risk factors for heart disease and reduce menopausal bone density loss.

Pinto beans are common in Mexico. They’re often eaten as whole beans, or mashed and fried.

One cup (171 grams) of cooked pinto beans contains roughly (40):

  • Calories: 245
  • Protein: 15.4 grams
  • Fiber: 15.4 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 74% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 39% of the RDI
  • Copper: 29% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 22% of the RDI

Pinto beans may help reduce blood cholesterol.

A study of 16 people found that eating 1/2 cup of pinto beans per day for eight weeks significantly reduced both total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood (41).

Another study showed that pinto beans may reduce LDL cholesterol as well as increase the production of propionate, a short-chain fatty acid produced by gut bacteria. Propionate is good for gut health (42).

Like many other beans, pinto beans can also reduce the rise in blood sugar that happens after eating a meal (29).

Summary Pinto beans may help reduce blood cholesterol, blood sugar and maintain gut health. They can be eaten either whole or mashed.

Navy beans, also known as haricot beans, are a great source of fiber, B vitamins and minerals.

One cup (182 grams) of cooked navy beans contains roughly (43):

  • Calories: 255
  • Protein: 15.0 grams
  • Fiber: 19.1 grams
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 64% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 48% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 29% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 24% of the RDI
  • Iron: 24% of the RDI

Navy beans appear to help reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome, likely due to their high fiber content.

An interesting study of 38 children who had abnormal blood cholesterol found that those who ate a muffin or smoothie containing 17.5 grams of navy bean powder every day for four weeks had higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol (44).

Similar effects have been found in adults.

A study in overweight and obese adults found that eating 5 cups (910 grams) of navy beans and other legumes per week was as effective as dietary counseling for reducing waist circumference, blood sugar and blood pressure (45).

Other smaller studies have found similar beneficial effects (46).

Summary Navy beans contain a lot of fiber and may help reduce the risk factors for metabolic syndrome. They also contain several important nutrients.

Interestingly, peanuts are legumes, which sets them apart from most other types of nuts.

Peanuts are a good source of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, protein and B vitamins.

One half-cup (73 grams) of peanuts contains roughly (47):

  • Calories: 427
  • Protein: 17.3 grams
  • Fiber: 5.9 grams
  • Saturated fat: 5 grams
  • Manganese: 76% of the RDI
  • Niacin: 50% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 32% of the RDI
  • Folate (vitamin B9): 27% of the RDI
  • Vitamin E: 25% of the RDI
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1): 22% of the RDI

Due to their high content of monounsaturated fats, peanuts can have a number of health benefits if they replace some other components of the diet.

A few large observational studies have found that eating peanuts is associated with a lower risk of death from many different causes, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes (48).

Interestingly, peanut butter doesn’t seem to have the same beneficial effects (49).

However, these studies are only observational, which means they can’t prove eating peanuts actually causes the reduction in these risks.

Other studies have examined the effect of eating peanuts on blood cholesterol (50, 51, 52).

One study in women who had high blood cholesterol found that those who ate peanuts as part of a low-fat diet for six months had lower total cholesterol and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol than those on a standard low-fat diet (53).

However, if you are salt-sensitive, aim for unsalted peanuts over the salted variety.

Summary Peanuts are actually a legume. They contain lots of healthy monounsaturated fats and may be beneficial for heart health.

Beans and legumes are some of the most underrated foods on the planet.

They are excellent sources of dietary fiber, protein, B vitamins and many other important vitamins and minerals.

There is good evidence that they can help reduce blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels and help maintain a healthy gut.

Not only that, but eating more beans and legumes as a source of protein instead of meat is also environmentally friendly.

Add them to soups, stews and salads, or just eat them on their own for a nutritious vegetarian meal.

An evidence-based nutrition article from our experts at Authority Nutrition.

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