This is a story about magic beans. No, I’m not talking about the famous fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m talking about real beans, the kind that you can find in your local grocery store! And the magic is not some supernatural feat but their amazing nutritional value and the many health benefits they impart on us. 

When I say beans, you are likely picturing black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, or soybeans. However, the bean family is part of the large and diverse Fabaceae plant family. The edible seeds of Fabaceae fruits, or pods, are what we eat and are the source of many foods you may already know, not as beans, but rather as peas or legumes. Regardless of what you call them, these delicious foods are nutritional powerhouses that you should include in your diet. 

Beans are a great source of fiber, protein, and antioxidants

In addition to keeping your bowels healthy and relieving constipation, the high-fiber content of beans can help lower your risk of heart disease, a leading cause of death in the US. Beans are also a great source of dietary protein a key macronutrient that helps regulate body weight which can make you feel full for longer periods than other foods. Beans as a protein source come with the added benefit of fewer calories and lower levels of saturated fat. However, it’s important to note that many beans are considered an incomplete source of protein, missing some of the essential amino acids our bodies can’t make, so other protein sources, such as quinoa and seeds or nuts, need to be included in the diet. Soybeans are a notable exception and do contain all the amino acids vital to us, making them and soybean-based products a one-stop protein shop.    

Hands of peasant holding soy beans after harvest
Beans are an excellent source of protein. Soybeans contain all essential amino acids.

Polyphenols are another great reason to love beans. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant, molecules that can help protect our cells from becoming damaged by some harmful molecules in the body. The antioxidant activity of polyphenols found in beans has been linked to counteracting processes in the body that damage cells and that lead to degenerative diseases, like some cancers. 

Beans help you gain control of blood sugars

Glucose, one of the simplest carbohydrates or sugars, is a vital source of fuel for our bodies throughout the day. When we eat, the glucose enters the bloodstream stream, and our blood sugar levels increase. Sensing this increase, our pancreas begins to release the hormone insulin, which lets our cells know to take up the glucose and break it down for energy or to store it for later. As cells take up the glucose, our blood sugar and insulin levels begin to fall. If blood sugar levels start to get too low, our brains can send signals to our cells to let it know to release some of the glucose it has stored. 

Unfortunately, when the bloodstream is flooded with too much glucose, the pancreas begins to work overtime to release more insulin to cope with the high glucose levels in the blood. If your liver and muscles don’t have room to store the excess sugar, fat cells will take over and store it as body fat, leading to weight gain. More dangerously, however, is the development of insulin resistance.

Have you ever been in a room with a loud buzzing noise but found that over time that buzz fades into the background, and you no longer notice it? Insulin resistance is a lot like that. At some point, your cells stop answering insulin’s call to take in the glucose. At first, the pancreas will continue to make additional insulin in hopes of overcoming the resistance. Eventually, the insulin-producing cells get fatigued by this extra effort. If this persists, you are at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or other serious health conditions.

Traditional Indian Red Lentil Dahl with Curcumin and Parsley and Cilantro
Beans, lentils, chickpeas and soybeans can reduce insulin resistance  and improve glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes.

What do beans have to do with glucose and insulin resistance? Well, beans are packed with complex carbohydrates, including starch and fiber, which are sugars that take a long time to be broken down by your body. Simple sugars, on the other hand, break down very quickly. This difference means that complex carbohydrates don’t cause your system to be overwhelmed by too much blood sugar at a single time, decreasing the likelihood of developing insulin resistance.

But wait, there’s more! Research studies have shown that bean, lentil, chickpea and soybean consumption can reduce insulin resistance  and improve glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes. Many beans, especially pinto beans  have also been found to improve cardiometabolic symptoms by lowering the synthesis of low-density cholesterol, known as “bad” cholesterol, as well as its absorption by the intestines. Peas, chickpeas, and lentils have also been reported to have similar impacts on lowering cholesterol.      

How to get more beans

From steamed edamame to cassoulet, chana masala to falafel, and lentil soup to red beans and rice, the mighty bean is a staple in cuisines around the world. This means there are lots of delicious and unique options when it comes to incorporating beans into your diet. Do keep in mind that all that great fiber may lead to stomach pain and increased gas if you consume too much too soon. You can minimize these side effects by trying digestive aids that help break down the α-galactosidase sugar in beans that leads to gas and soaking the beans overnight and replacing this water before cooking. It may also be helpful to slowly increase your intake over time to not overwhelm your digestive system. Happy eating!