Are Beans Good for You?

Lentils, kidney beans, black beans, and more offer unique health benefits

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black bean salad iStock-640112696

As research increasingly shows big health gains from eating a plant-based diet, beans and lentils are getting more attention. Americans are eating about 11 pounds a year on average, according to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture, which is up about 30 percent compared with 10 years ago. That’s good—but there are plenty of reasons to increase intake even more. Legumes are inexpensive and versatile—think chilis, salads, soups, and stews, and they’re extremely good for you.

A Hill of Benefits

For starters, beans have a dual identity—they’re both a protein and a vegetable. “They have double the benefits in each bite,” says Joan Salge Blake, R.D.N., a nutrition professor at Boston University. In addition to ­being an excel­lent source of muscle-­building protein, beans are at least as rich in potas­sium, fiber, and antioxidants as many veggies.

Beans are a top source of fiber, a nutri­ent that an estimated 95 percent of Americans don’t eat enough of. There are about 4 to 10 grams of fiber in ½ cup. (Men older than 50 should aim for 28 grams per day; women, 22 grams.) “Not only can fiber keep you regular, but the type found in beans can help lower your blood cholesterol levels,” Salge Blake says.

More on Healthy Eating

Bean eaters may be healthier, too. Daily consumption resulted in about a 10 percent lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure compared with not eating them, according to a review of 28 studies published in the journal Advances in Nutri­tion. Getting protein from beans instead of red or processed meat helps protect against diabetes, certain types of cancer, and premature death, other research shows. Beans may also help with weight control: People who ate them had a 22 percent lower risk of being obese than those who didn’t, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found.

Of course, there’s one important reason to load up on beans that goes beyond wellness: their shelf life. Dried beans will stay good for up to two years unopened or one year after opening. Canned beans last up to five years, as long as the can shows no dents, rust, or swelling.

Which Beans Should You Buy?

Nutritionwise, you really can’t go wrong with any legume. Though lentils are the fastest-­cooking and red kidney and black beans may be rich in antioxidants, the differences aren’t significant enough to favor one over the rest. Try a variety—garbanzo, kidney, pinto—to keep things interesting.

As for canned vs. dried, it’s a matter of choice. Canned beans may be higher in sodium, but draining and rinsing them cuts sodium by an average of 41 percent. (You can look for low-sodium canned beans, too.) Dried beans require some planning—you need to hydrate most kinds overnight, then cook 45 minutes to 2 hours. But they’re less expensive, and you can make a big batch and refrigerate or freeze them in some liquid.

Once your beans are ready, there are loads of delicious summery ways to dish them out.

• Toss black beans with frozen corn, cooked in the microwave and brought to room temperature, and a bit of jarred tomato salsa for an easy black bean and corn salsa. Eat on its own, stuff into an avocado half as a meal, or use to top grilled chicken or fish.

• Lentils or chickpeas tossed with a quick vinaigrette—olive oil, vinegar, and mustard—and chopped vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots, bell pepper, and cucum­ber, is a balanced meal—especially when served over a whole grain like farro or purple rice.

• White beans cooked in ­olive oil with garlic and rosemary can be a surprisingly fresh-tasting addition to pasta. Or mash them lightly with a fork and use to top whole-grain toast.

Got Gas? 4 Easy Solutions

“You may notice a small increase in gas if you aren’t used to eating beans, but that doesn’t mean something is wrong or that you need to avoid beans,” says Emily Haller, R.D.N., a gastroenterology dietitian with Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Instead:

1. Try a different bean. “If one causes some issues, it doesn’t mean every bean will,” Haller says.

2. Downsize. You may find ½ cup bothersome but be able to tolerate ¼ cup.

3. Soak it out. Spending time in water reduces beans’ gas-causing compounds. Boil 2 cups of beans in 10 cups of water for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and soak up to 4 hours. Drain, rinse, and cook in fresh water.

4. Use canned. “The compounds leach out into the canning water,” Haller says. Drain and rinse the beans well before using.

Kitchen Tools That Make Cooking Beans From Scratch Easier

Dried beans are inexpensive and easy to prepare, but they do take some time. A multi-cooker or a slow cooker can help. If you're in the market for one, consider one of these from CR's ratings.

Rachel Meltzer Warren

Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RD, is a freelance writer based in the New York area who contributes to Consumer Reports on food and nutrition topics.