“Beans, beans, good for your heart…”
You probably remember that little chant that was popular among second graders, at least at my elementary school. It lightheartedly reminds us of the cardiovascular benefits of eating legumes… among other things!
Turns out that there may be some truth in the old nursery rhyme. While it’s true that beans contain certain heart-healthy benefits (and on the downside, yes, they can cause flatulence as well), the health benefits of beans are not quite so cut and dried.
Why Are Beans Controversial?
Vegans and vegetarians often rely on black beans, lentils, and other bean varieties as their main source of protein. However, diets like Paleo and keto avoid beans entirely because they contain controversial compounds called lectins.
There are also different grades of beans. While chickpeas (or garbanzo beans), navy beans and many others are a good source of B vitamins, most Americans get their fill of beans from unhealthy soy products, which are devoid of such beneficial nutrients.
Peanuts are also technically in the bean family, as they’re classified as a legume (and not a nut). Sadly, allergies to peanuts are on the rise, especially among children.
Here’s the lowdown on the pros and cons of eating certain types of beans, and how you can prepare them to maximize their nutritional value.
The Pros: Health Benefits of Beans
There are quite a few nutrients packed into the humble little bean. They’re rich in dietary fiber, they’re a great protein source, and they contain vitamins like folate and iron.
They are also generally low-fat and contain few calories, making them a staple in the Mediterranean diet and slow carb diet.
It also turns out that the second graders in my class were right: Beans may, in fact, be good for your heart health! One study found that pinto beans, in particular, helped to reduce LDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease.
Another study showed that eating baked beans helped reduce risk factors for type 2 diabetes, while other research finds that eating kidney beans can help reduce inflammation in the colon. And if you’re trying to lose weight, good news: yet another study found that bean consumption is associated with smaller waist circumference, lower body weight, and even reduced blood pressure.
But before you go crazy eating high fiber beans for every meal, we need to understand their risk factors, and how to mitigate it.
The Cons: Can Beans Be Unhealthy?
The biggest problem with beans is that they contain lectins, which are also present in high amounts in grains. Lectins essentially act as thorns do in rose bushes — as a protective measure for the plant. Instead of prickly deterrents that harm our skin, lectins assault our digestive systems, prompting predators (or consumers like us) to stay away.
One of the experts I look to most on this topic is Dr. Steven Gundry, renowned heart surgeon and author of the book The Plant Paradox. He explains in our podcast interview:
Lectins are a sticky plant protein, and they’re designed by plants as a defense mechanism against being eaten. These plants don’t want to be eaten… so one of the ways they fight against being eaten is to produce these lectins, which like to bind to specific sugar molecules in us or any of their predators. And those sugar molecules line the wall of our gut. They line the lining of our blood vessels, they line our joints. They line the spaces between nerves. And when lectins hit these places, they are a major cause of leaky gut. They can break down the gut wall barrier. They’re a major cause of arthritis, they’re a major cause of heart disease, and they’re a major cause, in my research, of autoimmune diseases.
We can understand from this that some lectins are more toxic than others, but all lectins have some effect on the body. This is the reason that grains, beans, and other lectin-containing foods cannot be eaten raw. In fact, ingesting even just a few raw kidney beans can cause vomiting and digestive problems.
Another problem with lectins is that they can contribute to obesity and diabetes. Lectins can bind to any carbohydrate-containing protein cells, including insulin and leptin receptors, desensitizing them. Without proper insulin and leptin function, problems like metabolic syndrome can emerge.
How to Reduce Lectins in Beans and Grains
Fortunately, it’s possible to reduce the number of lectins in beans and grains by using certain traditional cooking methods. Sprouting, fermenting, soaking, and pressure cooking are all useful ways to cut down on lectins, but keep in mind that none of these methods will remove the lectins completely. You can also buy certain brands that have taken some of these steps, so you don’t have to do any of the prep yourself.
You may choose to avoid beans entirely, but if your body isn’t too sensitive to lectin, you can reap the beneficial fiber content with these preparation methods. Start by enjoying a half-cup or so at a time to see how you feel. You might also want to get your cholesterol levels checked before and after you try these methods!
How to Soak Beans
The easiest way to remove lectins prior to cooking is to soak dry beans overnight. For best results, cover the beans completely with cold water, and add a little baking soda to help neutralize the lectins further. Since the lectins will release into the water, try to replace the soaking solution at least once or twice. Drain and rinse a final time before cooking to ensure you’ve removed as much as possible.
How to Sprout Beans
If you want to take it a step further, you can sprout the beans after you’ve soaked them. To do this, its best to use special sprouting seeds, which are free of any bacteria that would be killed if you were simply boiling them as usual.
After the soaking process, put the beans in a mason jar with a sprouting lid, or a cloth secured by a rubber band. Invert the jar over a bowl, and set it on the kitchen counter out of the way. You should see sprouts within a day, but you can keep sprouting them for a bit longer if you prefer. Just be sure to give them a rinse once a day. For more details on how to sprout individual legumes and grains, this is a great resource.
How to Ferment Beans
If you like your beans a little funky, fermentation might be the way to go. Like the sprouting process, you’ll want to start with rinsing and soaking your beans, except this time you want to cook them.
I recommend boiling them for at least an hour on the stovetop, or throw the soaked beans into a slow cooker and set on low for six to eight hours. Next, add seasoning (like garlic or salt) and a culture, like kombucha, yogurt, or a culture powder you can buy at the store. Mash them up a little to get more surface area fermenting, cover, and store in a warm place for several days. Open the lid slightly every day to release the excess gas, then set in the refrigerator when done.
Serve your fermented beans as a side dish, or enjoy them as a refreshing side dish!
Use a Pressure Cooker
Another easy way to reduce and almost completely eliminate lectins is to cook foods in a pressure cooker, like an Instant Pot. This greatly reduces the lectin content of beans and is an easy and fast way to cook them.
As with the other preparation methods I mentioned above, I recommend soaking the beans overnight in several changes of water, then pressure cooking according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Buy Safe Brands
If you don’t want to go through the hassle of soaking and cooking the beans yourself, Dr. Gundry recommends Eden brand beans. They’re pre-soaked, cooked in pressure cookers, then stored in BPA-free cans. Go ahead and eat these beans straight out of the container for the ultimate low-lectin convenience!
What Level of Lectin Consumption Is Safe?
This is a difficult question with no single answer. Keep in mind that many foods contain lectins, not just beans and grains. We can’t avoid them completely. The key is finding a workable balance that minimizes the worst sources.
My personal recommendation is to soak, sprout, ferment, or pressure cook foods high in lectins, like legumes, seeds, nuts, and grains like barley, oats, and wheat.
Nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant also contain lectins, and these can be reduced by peeling and pressure cooking.
What I Do to Avoid Lectin
Personally, I avoid grains and legumes unless properly prepared, soak nuts overnight, and avoid all processed and commercially prepared foods, grains, and soy.
When I was actively working to halt my autoimmune disease, I avoided lectins much more carefully. Similarly, if you are overweight or attempting to lose weight, a more stringent avoidance of lectins might be helpful.
For many, avoiding lectins for a year or so can help soothe the intestinal lining, improve gut bacteria, facilitate weight loss, and reduce allergy symptoms. If you or your children are suffering from unknown allergies or gut problems, try removing beans entirely from your diet to see if that helps.
The Bottom Line
While many people in the United States don’t sprout or ferment their beans and grains, it might be worth trying. After all, beans are proven to lower cholesterol and fight cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, if your gut health suffers when you eat beans, or your kids have a strong reaction to them, you might want to avoid them a bit more stringently.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board-certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Do you eat beans? If so, what kind(s)? Share below!