There’s an old tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to ensure prosperity for the rest of the year. But if you want health as well as wealth, you may want to eat more legumes for the entire year. These humble beans boast big benefits for those who eat them often: they can reduce your risk of heart disease and strokes, help prevent cancer, and even save money.
The beans that come packed with these benefits are the starchy legumes: green peas, navy beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, and more exotic varieties like garbanzos, black beans, lentils, and fava beans. Despite their beautiful differences in color and taste, all the legumes have similar nutritional value. A serving (1/3 cup of cooked beans) contains around 80 calories, no cholesterol, lots of complex carbohydrates, and little fat. In addition, beans are a good source of B vitamins, potassium, and fiber, which promotes digestive health, relieves constipation, and may even help prevent colon cancer and reduce blood cholesterol (a leading cause of heart disease).
Not used to eating lots of legumes? Here are some tips on incorporating more beans into your diet.
* Beans can be included in the pasta, bread, and grain food group–the base of the USDA’s food pyramid, from which you should eat 6-11 servings each day. But while they make a great side dish–think three-bean salad or baked beans–legumes are also a good substitute for meat. Even healthy cuts of meat, like lean meat and chicken, generally contain 150-225 calories per three-ounce serving as well as some saturated fat and no fiber (and they’re more expensive than beans). And you don’t have to go vegetarian to reap the benefits of legumes–start slowly, eating beans instead of meat twice a week.
* Legumes don’t contain complete proteins like meat, but as long as you eat grain or dairy products over the course of the day, you will meet your nutritional needs. Many traditional bean dishes already contain these combinations–think of beans and rice, bean burritos, split pea soup with crackers.
* If you experience intestinal discomfort when you eat legumes, try changing the soaking water several times when you prepare dried beans, or switching to canned beans. The processing they go through gets rid of some of the gas-producing substances (just remember to rinse the beans well to wash off excess salt). You may also try using a product like Beano, which contains an enzyme that breaks down gas-producing substances in the beans.
* Drinking adequate fluids and exercising regularly can also help your gastrointestinal system handle the increased dietary fiber. As you include more beans in your diet, your body should grow more accustomed to fiber and not experience as much intestinal gas.
* One last tip to help you avoid a common misadventure in bean-cooking: Beans will grow on you. Literally. Since the average dried bean triples in size when cooked, be sure to use a big enough pot so that they don’t boil over.