If you had to pick one food to be stuck on a desert island with, it would have to be beans. They'd provide you with almost complete nutrition and you wouldn't have to worry about offending anyone.
Yes, beans can be gassy, but there are ways around that. So don't let their "explosive" nature scare you away from some of the best lean protein around.
When your diet's based on protein -- and fiber-rich beans and other complex carbohydrates -- you're more likely to feel full sooner. In addition, a diet high in fiber can reduce your risk of developing diabetes and help lower blood cholesterol levels, which can reduce your risk of heart disease.
Complementing beans with grain foods, like rice, makes them a great substitute for higher-fat protein sources like meats. Beans are also filling enough to stave off hunger. The low-fat, high-fiber nature of a bean-centered diet means chances are good that you'll lose weight eating this way. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 3 cups of beans per week.
Not only are beans low in fat and high in quality protein, but they also have the added bonus of soluble fiber's disease-preventing qualities. The soluble fiber in beans dissolves in water, trapping bile acids in its gummy goo. This lowers blood levels of damaging LDL cholesterol, especially if LDL cholesterol levels were high to begin with, without compromising the level of protective HDL cholesterol.
Because beans are singled out for their soluble fiber, you may not realize they also provide substantial insoluble fiber, which helps combat constipation, colon cancer, and other conditions that afflict your digestive tract. How? Insoluble fiber absorbs water, which swells the size of stool, puts pressure on the intestines, and moves everything along faster. To help combat the gas problem -- caused by indigestible carbohydrates -- let your body get used to eating beans. Start slowly, eating only small amounts at first, and try to eat them when you know you'll be active afterward; it helps break up the gas.
Beans contain several types of phytochemicals. They are rich in lignans, which may play a role in preventing osteoporosis, heart disease, and certain cancers. The flavonoids in beans may help reduce heart disease and cancer risk. Phytosterols, also in legumes, help reduce blood cholesterol levels.
As for vitamins and minerals, beans are a bonanza of folic acid, copper, iron, and magnesium -- four nutrients that many nutrition experts agree we don't get enough of. Indeed, most dry beans and peas are rich sources of iron -- ideal for people who don't eat meat. The nutritional content of most beans is very similar to the black beans we've chosen as a representative example. (Soybeans are in a class by themselves, so are listed separately.) Exceptions? White beans have almost twice the iron of black beans, while kidney beans are somewhere in between. And fiber does vary. Most differences, however, are minor.
Selection and Storage
Dry beans are available year-round, are inexpensive, and can be found in any well-stocked supermarket near the rice, or check the ethnic food section. You may need to visit a health-food store for more exotic varieties. Packaged or loose, select beans that look clean, are not shriveled, and are uniformly sized with even color and uncracked hulls. Discard any pebbles, as well as any beans with pinholes, a sign of insect infestation. Some varieties of beans are available canned. They offer convenience but are rather mushy and very salty, although researchers have found that rinsing canned beans under cold running water for one minute eliminates up to 60 percent of the added salt. If stored properly, dried beans last for a year or more. If packaged, keep them in their unopened bag. Once open, or if you bought them in bulk, store them in a dry, airtight glass jar in a cool, dark spot. Store cooked beans in an airtight container for up to one week in the refrigerator or freeze for up to six months.
Preparation and Serving Tips
When cooking dry beans, it's best to plan ahead; they do not qualify as "fast" food. Before soaking or cooking, sort through the beans, discarding shriveled or discolored beans, pebbles, and debris; then rinse the beans under cold running water. It's best to soak beans overnight for six to eight hours. This softens the beans, reduces the cooking time, and removes the gas-promoting undigestible carbohydrates.
But if you haven't planned far enough ahead, you can quick-soak them (although you'll end up with less-firm beans): Put the beans in water and boil for one minute, turn off the heat, and let them stand in the same water for one hour.
After soaking, discard any beans that float to the top, throw out the soaking water (which contains the gas-producing indigestible carbohydrates), and add fresh water to the pot before cooking. Add enough water to cover the beans by two inches. Bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until tender -- about one to three hours, depending on the bean variety. They're done when you can easily stick them with a fork.
Beans are notoriously bland-tasting, but that makes them versatile. They take on the spices of any ethnic cuisine. Many cultures have perfected the art of combining beans with grains or seeds to provide a complete protein. For instance, try Mexican corn tortillas with beans and tomatoes, or classic Spanish rice and beans, or traditional Italian pasta e fagioli (a pasta and bean soup). You can't beat black bean soup with complementary corn bread on the side.
Rediscover beans and peas and all the nutrition and versatility they have to offer. Find a way to work these valuable vegetables into your diet. Experiment with the types of beans and peas you like best in your recipes to make your weight-loss meals and snacks both nutritious and interesting.
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