The Health Benefits of Beans Prove It's a Worthy Kitchen Staple

There's much more to beans than fiber. Get the lowdown on all the different types of beans' health benefits and delicious ways to enjoy them.

Aside from the stuffed-to-the-brim burrito (or burrito bowl!) you order when you need a super-filling weekday lunch or the chana masala you pick up from your go-to Indian restaurant on a night in, beans might not be a staple in your day-to-day diet. But considering beans’ health benefits, affordability, and versatility, you’ll definitely want to make them one. Here, learn all about the most popular types of beans, including tasty ideas for how to add them to your diet.

What Are Beans?

Though you may jokingly refer to them as a "musical fruit," beans fall under the legume umbrella and are a type of pulse. For more clarification, a legume is a plant in the Fabaceae family that grows in pods, and a pulse is the edible seed that grows inside those pods, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Within the pulse family are beans, lentils, and peas.

There's not just one type of bean, though — there are many varieties, and they can differ in taste and texture. Black beans, for example, are chewy on the outside and creamy on the inside and can typically be found incorporated into Central American, South American, and Caribbean dishes, according to the Bean Institute. And kidney beans, in addition to their distinguishing kidney-like shape, have a firm, meaty texture that’s ideal for soups and stews.

But TBH, the types of beans aren’t something you should be too concerned about, says Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. “I don’t think it matters whether you add more lentils or black beans to your diet — I think they’re both great. I think sometimes semantics make things more confusing when we should be celebrating and eating more of these foods in general," she explains.

bowl of various types of beans mixed together
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Beans Nutrition Facts

All types of beans offer important macronutrients and micronutrients, and they'll only cost you a buck or two per pound — much less than other healthy foods (think: fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meat, “better-for-you” snacks, etc.), says Caspero. “When you get down to the basics of what a healthy cornerstone diet can look like, beans are very inexpensive and there’s really not a lot of barriers for most people to eat more of them, which can’t be said the same for other healthy things out there," she notes.

While all beans differ slightly in terms of precise nutrition information, the gist is about the same. To get a picture of the nutrition facts of beans, check out the profile of a half-cup serving of kidney beans, per the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • 163 calories
  • 7.5 grams protein
  • 6.5 grams fat
  • 20 grams carbohydrate
  • 6.5 grams fiber
  • <1 gram sugar

Health Benefits of Beans

Here are just a few amazing qualities and health benefits of beans, which will make you want to have a helping every day (if you don't already).

Full of Filling Macronutrients

If you’re trying to quell your afternoon hanger, a helping of beans might just be the easiest way to get the job done. “Fiber and protein are two things we talk so much about when it comes to satiation and fullness, and beans are sort of perfectly packaged together with both of those nutrients,” explains Caspero. A half-cup serving of black beans, for instance, packs 7.5 grams of protein and 7.5 grams of fiber, according to the USDA.

Aside from keeping your stomach from growling, fiber helps reduce cholesterol levels and keeps your blood sugar from spiking, notes Caspero. Plus, the protein helps maintain, repair, and build muscle, adds Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N, a registered dietitian.

Offer Essential Nutrients for Plant-Based Eaters

If you cut back on your meat consumption or nix animal products from your diet entirely, you might struggle to get enough iron, a mineral used to make proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. While there is iron in plant foods, the specific type they contain isn’t absorbed as well as the kind found in animal products, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That means meat-free eaters need to consume nearly twice as much plant-based iron to get their fill, notes the NIH — and luckily, most types of beans can help you do just that. A half-cup serving of soybeans contains over 4.5 milligrams of iron (25 percent of the RDA, or 12.5 percent of the RDA for vegetarians), according to the USDA. (BTW, eating your beans with foods that contain vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, strawberries, and peppers, can boost iron absorption too, according to the NIH.)

This same situation applies to zinc, a mineral that supports your immune system and is found in large amounts in seafood and meat. The nutrient isn’t absorbed as well when it's consumed with phytates — compounds found in some whole-grain breads, cereals, and legumes that bind to the mineral, per the NIH. Since many vegetarians eat diets with lots of phytates and don't get any zinc from meat, some followers of the diet need to eat 50 percent more of the RDA of zinc than non-vegetarians. Luckily, many types of beans are loaded with zinc, including white beans, which offer more than 1 milligram of zinc (nearly 13 percent of the RDA, or 8 percent of the RDA for some meat-free eaters) per half cup, according to the USDA.

Great Source of Antioxidants

Citrus and berries are probably the first to come to mind when you think about antioxidant-rich foods, but beans also contain polyphenols, antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, says Caspero. By fighting off this damage, polyphenols may reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and neurological diseases, according to research published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

Contain Copious Amounts of Folate

You might not think about your dietary sources of folate, but it’s an important nutrient to score enough of throughout the day. Folate, a type of B vitamin, plays an essential role in the creation of blood cells and helps prevent neural tube defects in infants, according to the NIH. Since the neural tube develops within the first few weeks of pregnancy — when a person might not yet realize they’re pregnant — it’s important for people who are able to become pregnant to ensure they get their daily fill of 400 micrograms, points out Caspero. (One study found that the average pregnant person didn't know they were pregnant until they were 5.5 weeks along — but these defects typically develop in the first month of pregnancy.)

Even if you're on birth control or have no intention of getting pregnant, folate is still important for healthy cell growth and function. Luckily, many types of beans can help you hit your quota; half a cup of pinto beans, for example, contains nearly 35 percent of the recommended daily allowance, according to the USDA.

Rich In Potassium

Bananas aren’t the only plant food that can fend off muscle cramps while you work out. Potassium — which is needed to properly contract muscles and transmit nerves — is abundant in beans, with a half-cup serving of white beans offering 482 milligrams — nearly 19 percent of the RDA, according to the USDA. Another reason to score enough potassium: It plays a crucial role in balancing the sodium you consume. “If you have too much sodium, that’s when you’ll get things like increased blood pressure and water retention,” explains Caspero. “Having high potassium in the diet is going to really help counteract some of those effects and provide fluid balance, so then you’ll see things like reduced blood pressure and reduced water retention," she notes. Since having high blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’ll definitely want to add a helping of any type of bean to your plate.

Promote Healthy Bones

Turns out, many types of beans have a quality in common with milk — they both help keep your bones and teeth strong and healthy, thanks to the plant food's phosphorus content. The mineral also plays an essential role in DNA and RNA production, says Caspero. To score this health benefit of beans, munch on a half-cup serving of garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), which provides 144.5 milligrams of phosphorus (almost 21 percent of the RDA), according to the USDA.

Potential Risks of Beans

If you've always avoided beans and are now thinking of increasing your intake, do so gradually, recommends Caspero. “If you’re new to eating beans and you feel like they give you gas, that’s because they contain oligosaccharide, which is a carbohydrate that can be harder to digest,” she explains. “I recommend slowly introducing more beans into the diet, and that allows your body to start producing more of those enzymes that you’ll need in order to digest the food,” she explains.

How to Buy, Prep, and Eat Beans

Okay, you know these bite-sized plant foods pack a ton of health perks, but which types of beans should you add to your plate — and how?

First off, when shopping for beans, you'll find them either canned or dried; there isn't much nutritional difference between the two. The canned ones may contain added sodium, but you can significantly reduce the amount by giving them a quick rinse with cold water, explains Caspero. You can also stock up on no-sodium-added canned beans if you’re still concerned, she adds. To make dried types of beans edible, dump them in a pot, cover them with water by at least three inches, season to taste, and simmer until they’re nice and creamy, which can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours.

Once your beans are ready to go from pot to plate, aim to give yourself half of a cup, which is about one serving, says Gans. If that sounds like a lot to fork down in one sitting, feel free to spread it out throughout the day, suggests Caspero.

Early on in your bean-eating journey, your pantry might not be stocked with every single variety on the grocery store shelf, so if you only have kidney beans but your recipe calls for pinto, don’t sweat it. “Some beans have a bit more distinct taste and do better in certain dishes, but they’re usually very interchangeable,” notes Caspero.

To start adding all types of beans to your plate and score each bean's health benefits, steal these nutritionist-approved meal ideas.

For an easy dinner protein. You’ve probably noshed on pinto beans in most of the burritos you’ve consumed throughout your life, but they’re just as delicious outside of a tortilla. The speckled beans can also be used in chilis, soups, and baked dishes such as Caspero's vegetarian enchilada casserole. Alternatively, if you’re looking to swap your usual tofu and tempeh for something different — yet just as nutritious — try edamame. These bright green, immature soybeans have mild, pea-like flavor and firm texture, so they work well in stir fries, protein-packed salmon cakes, and jalapeño-infused salads.

As a burrito or burrito bowl filling. Try mixing a can of black beans with some taco seasoning and salsa to create a burrito filling; combining a helping with rice, avocado, and sautéed bell peppers to concoct a DIY burrito bowl; or adding a serving into an egg scramble for breakfast, suggests Caspero.

As a salad topper. Chickpeas are super easy to drop on top of a salad, says Gans. Her favorite: Baby gem lettuce topped with red onion, grape tomatoes, tuna, and chickpeas, then drizzled in a blend of white balsamic vinegar, oil, and fresh lemon juice.

In your fave pasta dish. Try popping some beans into your favorite pasta meals for an interesting texture. Take, for example, Gans' pasta Bolognese: “I reduce the ground beef in my Bolognese sauce and add in black beans. I mix that in with a red sauce, pasta, peas, and some sautéed garlic and onion,” she says. Another idea? “One of my favorite things is to sauté garlic and oil, then throw in some spinach, cannellini beans, a little of the aquafaba (the water your beans were canned or cooked in), and a little pasta water — the starchiness of those liquids really helps the oil stick to the pasta,” details Gans. Don’t forget to top it all off with Parmesan.

To make "chicken" salad. Hummus is great and all, but if you have a hankering for something a bit more creative, use some hearty garbanzo beans to make a plant-based “chicken” salad. Just mash the chickpeas, add mayo and veggies, and you’ve got a satisfying sandwich filling, says Caspero.

To make your dishes creamier. While there are technically a few different types of white beans — including Great Northern, navy, and cannellini — they’re all pretty similar in terms of nutrition and texture, says Caspero. Since they all have a super creamy texture, they’re perfect for incorporating into your morning fruit smoothie, hummus, or soup to make it even more velvety, she adds.

In your favorite soup. Caspero likes to incorporate kidney beans into gumbo, chili, and minestrone soup, as well as a red beans and rice dish with bell peppers, onions, and a bit of vegan sausage.

As an avo toast addition. Mash up some black beans with olive oil, smear it on a thick slice of toast, and top it with avocado, poached eggs, pepper, and hot sauce, suggests Gans.

As a quick snack. For an easy snack, defrost a bag of frozen, fully cooked edamame pods overnight, pop the entire thing in your mouth, and rip out the beans with your teeth, says Caspero.

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