The bean song we loved to sing as kids may be silly but it’s true. Eating beans regularly is good for your heart, and you don’t need to eat a hill of them to benefit. A study published last November in the Journal of Nutrition suggests having just 1⁄2 cup of cooked pinto beans daily might lower cholesterol.
Researchers from the Brainerd Veterans Administration Clinic in Brainerd, Minnesota, and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Grand Forks, North Dakota, recruited 40 adults with a cluster of conditions—including low HDL cholesterol, a high waist-to-hip ratio and high triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar levels—all symptoms associated with increased risk for heart disease. They randomly assigned them, and a similar group of 40 healthy adults, to include either 1⁄2 cup of pinto beans (served up in soup or bean salad) or a small bowl of chicken noodle soup in their daily diets. After 12 weeks, the bean eaters in both groups showed improved cholesterol levels: for the healthy controls, total cholesterol dropped by 8 percent and for those with several risk factors for heart disease it dropped by 4 percent.
This supports other research that demonstrates that beans of various types have heart-healthy benefits. A 19-year analysis of the First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the nation’s premier health census, found that people who ate beans four or more times a week were 22 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who ate them less than once weekly. Soluble fiber is a key reason why, says Philip Ades, M.D., author of the new EatingWell for a Healthy Heart Cookbook (The Countryman Press, 2008). “Like all foods that contain a lot of soluble fiber, beans help bind cholesterol and keep it from being absorbed in the gut,” he explains. And, as the fiber is fermented, it produces changes in short-chain fatty acids that can inhibit cholesterol formation. (By-products of this same fermentation process are what cause the gas so often associated with eating beans.)
But unlike previous research, this most recent study didn’t find significant differences in fermentation patterns, which led its co-author Philip Reeves, Ph.D., an ARS research chemist, to speculate that other components in beans also may be responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effect. He points out that beans contain a variety of heart-protective chemicals, including flavanoids, compounds also found in wine, berries and chocolate that inhibit the adhesion of platelets in the blood, which can help lower risk for heart attack and strokes.
Though Americans notoriously shun beans, getting only about 61⁄2 pounds a year, on average, Reeves is hopeful that studies like his will encourage more of us to dig in regularly. Don’t let the flatulence factor be a turnoff, since the more you eat, the more your GI tract will adapt.
Bottom line: Getting 1⁄2 cup of beans a day is heart-healthy—and easy. Add rinsed canned beans to soups, stews and salads and make entrees like chili, bean enchiladas or pasta e fagiole part of your weekly repertoire.