It seems like more people are searching for “superfoods” to turbocharge their diets. Often, these are foods most Americans are unfamiliar with initially, but once they learn about their supposed nutritional and health benefits (often exaggerated), they start scarfing the stuff down like it’s going out of style.
Think about it: who was eating kale, acai berries and quinoa 15 years ago? No one. But nowadays you see those words on every menu in town.
The word “superfood” conjures up thoughts of exciting, colorful foods from far off lands that possess magical healing powers. But a food doesn’t have to be exotic to be healthy. In fact, there’s one superfood every American is familiar with, but few seem to eat.
Beans don’t fit the typical image of a “superfood.” They aren’t as sexy as acai berries or activated charcoal smoothies. They’re not new, lavish or exciting. In America, they’re sometimes viewed as a staple for blue-collar people who can’t afford much else. For these reasons, the majority of Americans might overlook beans as a smart food choice. But passing on beans is a big mistake. Beans possess a number of characteristics that make them an amazingly nutritious food, and their practicality is unmatched. Here’s why you should eat more beans.
The Forgotten Food
It seems like beans have been a part of the American diet forever. If you look at the old pictures of skyscraper construction workers eating their lunch atop steel beams, chances are you’ll see a fork stuck in a can of beans alongside them.
Nearly all Americans have eaten beans at some point in their lives. But chances are, beans don’t play a regular role in their diet. And that’s a shame.
According to Ryan Andrews, Nutrition Coach at Precision Nutrition, the average American eats roughly 216 pounds of meat and fish annually—compared to a measly 7 pounds of beans.
If that seems out of balance, it’s because it is. Although beans can be used as a substitute for meat, it rarely happens in the American diet. And when it comes to side dishes, other foods—like rice, pasta and French fries—are more frequently eaten than beans.
The Magical Fruit
So, very few Americans are eating beans. But who cares? What’s so great about beans anyway?
Well, let’s start with their protein content. On average, a cup of cooked beans contains 15 grams of protein, which is a phenomenal amount for a plant-based food. Popular types such as black, navy, garbanzo, lima, pinto and white all have at least 14 grams of protein in a single cooked cup serving. The protein content of beans is much higher than that of most grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
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True, a one-cup serving of cooked ground beef has more protein (22 grams) than a one-cup serving of cooked beans; but look what’s “coming along for the ride,” so to speak.
Let’s compare a cup of 80-percent ground beef with a cup of black beans.
- The beef has 230 calories. The beans have 240.
- The beef has 23% of your daily fat and 30% of your daily saturated fat. The beans? 0% and 1%.
- The beef has 25% of your daily cholesterol. The beans have 0%.
- The beef has just 7% of your daily potassium. The beans have 22%.
- The beef has no fiber. The beans have 60% of your daily value.
- As for vitamins, the beef has more B-12 and B-6, but the beans have more iron, magnesium and calcium.
With a similar amount of calories, beans bring more useful nutrients like fiber, potassium and vitamins. The beef brings saturated fat and cholesterol. The beans pack more of the nutrients you want, while the beef packs more of the things you want to avoid.
You’re consuming roughly the same number of calories, but the beans give you more bang for your caloric buck. “Whole plant foods [such as beans] are very nutrient dense and contain a reasonable amount of calories,” Andrews says.
One especially useful attribute of beans is their high fiber content. Fiber is crucial to a healthy diet, yet the average American falls woefully short of the recommended daily value. According to the National Institutes of Health, teens and adults should eat between 20 and 38 grams of fiber each day, and men need more fiber than women. But the average American eats only 10 to 15 grams of fiber daily. For comparison, a single cup of cooked black beans delivers 15 grams of fiber.
Fiber helps break down foods for easier digestion, maintains good bowel health, lowers cholesterol levels and helps you feel fuller longer. High-fiber diets have been linked with positive outcomes such as a reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease.
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Beans are also high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which are abundant in nearly every plant-based food and are increasingly linked to health and longevity. Andrews says, “Diets built around plant foods may help reduce risk of heart disease, improve blood lipid profile, reduce blood pressure, reduce cancer rates and reduced rates of type 2 diabetes.”
A Food You Can Use
Let’s say you go out and grab the newest hot superfood—goji berries, coconut oil, chia seeds or whatever. Chances are, these foods will cost you an arm and a leg. You might not even know how to use them. Should you eat them straight up? Put them in a recipe? How are they cooked?
These foods certainly have nutritional benefits, but their cost and unfamiliarity can be prohibitive. Such is not the case with good old beans. Beans are inexpensive, widely available, easily prepared, and—perhaps most important—they taste good.
No one wants to pinch his nose and force himself to eat something just because it’s healthy. With beans, that won’t be the case. They have a mild taste that agrees with nearly every type of palate. “Beans taste good, they’re inexpensive and they’re healthy,” Andrews says.
They’re also extremely diverse in the kitchen. Beans are tasty on their own, but you can also use them in salads, pastas, soups, rice dishes and chilis. You can even crush them up to create a delicious dip.
It’s worth noting that other legumes, such as peas and lentils, confer many of the same great nutritional and practical benefits as beans—and they are similarly underutilized in the typical American diet.
The UCONN College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has some awesome guidelines for how to cook different types of beans as well as several bean-based recipes.