Beans deliver great nutrition per calorie. Beans are an excellent, nonfat source of protein. Just one cup of beans provides as much as 16 grams of protein.
Beans are also loaded with complex carbohydrates. Unlike the carbohydrates found in many high-sugar foods, the carbohydrates in beans have a low glycemic index. This means they are released more slowly into the bloodstream to help provide sustained energy without spikes in blood-sugar level.
In addition, beans are full of soluble fiber, the kind found to lower LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol responsible for some kinds of heart disease) in the blood. Soluble fiber also is helpful in keeping blood sugar levels in check and might help protect against certain cancers.
One cup of cooked beans provides 3 to 4 grams of dietary fiber, the amount you'd find in 10 slices of whole wheat bread, 5 cups of oatmeal, five oat bran muffins or 3 to 4 cups of cooked vegetables.
Beans also provide their share of several important vitamins and minerals. These include potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron and B-complex vitamins. For example, one cup of cooked beans provides around 25 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron for women and 50 percent for men.
Finally, beans are a relatively low-cost source of protein. One cup of cooked beans contains about 240 calories and provides 25 to 35 percent of the RDA for protein.
Although beans could be called the original convenience food because they do not require preservation and are easy to transport, one of the concerns busy cooks today have with dry beans is the length of cooking time required. This can be reduced by pre-soaking the beans, pressure cooking or cooking in the microwave oven. Or simply open a can of cooked beans and reheat.
Beans are an important part of a healthy diet. They fill you up instead of out, help people with diabetes control blood sugar, are beneficial for your heart, help prevent constipation and might help prevent cancer as part of a more plant-based diet.
· Eat beans on salads. Add cooked beans to tossed salads and pasta salads.
· Use beans in soups. Add beans to vegetable soup or make pureed bean or pea soup.
· Thicken sauces. Pure beans with a little liquid and thicken sauces.
· Pure beans into a dip. Pure beans with flavored vinegar and oregano for an easy dip. For barbecued bean dip, use no-salt-added tomato sauce and chili powder. Use as a spread on vegetables, crackers, tortilla chips and pita bread.
· Fill up your sandwich. Use beans and fresh vegetables to create a pita pocket that is filling and nutritious.
· Make vegetarian chili with beans. Use cooked beans, corn, peppers, onions, tomatoes and spices for easy chili.
· Top-baked potatoes. Spice them with chili powder, cumin and garlic powder; serve them on top of a baked potato with salsa and nonfat sour cream.
For more information about the nutritional benefits of beans and to access a great collection of recipes using beans, check out the American Dry Bean Board Web site at www.americanbean.org. Also read about beans' nutritional value at the Web site of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/5ADay/month/beans.htm.
Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.