by Ruth Ann Clayton, RD

Even though many people think of beans more as an economical food or something you get in Mexican restaurants, they are actually a high quality food that can add greatly to your overall health. Beans have historically been an important part of the world’s food supply. Now they are becoming more popular as an asset for your health.

Beans, also known as legumes, are of the botanical family Leguminosae. There are hundreds of varieties in the world. The most common in North America include dried beans and peas such as adzuki, anasazi, black beans, fava, great northern, lima, navy, pinto, red kidney, soybeans, garbanzo (chickpeas), mung, black-eyed peas and split peas. Lentils are included in this group and some even include peanuts.

Before humans knew the nutrition of legumes as a food, they used such crops to enrich the soil. Beans were some of the first crops cultivated and first plants domesticated in the New World. They were an easily portable food and commonly used to trade. Egyptians, nomads, and American Indians among others used them in this manner. Their nutritional value has been recognized since the Depression.

It is a disservice to simply characterize this super food as a cheap, portable product. Beans offer many advantages not the least of which is that they can convert nitrogen to protein. This makes legumes a wonderful vegetarian protein that contains adequate amounts of all necessary essential amino acids with the exception of methionine. (Methionine can be added by including grains in the same day as the beans. That way you will have all the necessary amino acids in your diet.) Their high vegetable protein content means you will find legumes listed in the Meat and Beans Food Group.

Yet beans are also listed in the Vegetable Food Group because of their plant based vitamins and minerals. B vitamins, including niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, B 6 and folate are all found in beans. Minerals found in legumes include potassium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Although naturally low in sodium, you still need to check the labels of canned beans and prepared bean dishes for their sodium content.

The health benefits of beans are wide ranging. These benefits are a direct result of beans being high in fiber and naturally low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Research suggests that the soluble fiber in beans may result in the lowering of cholesterol by absorbing bile fats. They also contain the heart healthy nutrient folate. Research has also focused on a lowered risk of certain cancers. In addition beans make you feel full and help keep your blood sugar level due to their low glycemic index.

It was originally recommended that you should consume one (1) cup per week but more recent recommendations have increased the desired amount to three (3) cups per week for maximum health benefits. You can increase your bean intake by including them in soups and chili, salads, salsas, tortillas, stir- fry, and by seasoning them and making them a plant based entrée or side dish such as Hummus. Their higher fiber content means you should introduce beans slowly and work up to the three (3) servings per week.

Beans are absolutely in the Super Foods family due to their treasure trove of nutrients and disease fighting abilities. By cutting your meat intake and replacing it with beans, you will find it easy to use beans for health.

Ruth Ann Clayton is the Registered Dietitian at Nature’s Way. Reach her at This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.

Ruth Ann Clayton, Registered Dietitian, is active in both the American Dietetics Association and Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietetic Practice Group. Her nationally accredited Dietetic Internship and her years of experience in public health and hospital settings reflect her commitment to your health and well being.

As the co-owner of Nature’s Way, she uses her comprehensive background to research products, read labels, investigate manufacturers and provide information for her customers.