You know how that school-yard rhyme goes: Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart. But Donna M. Winham, a nutrition professor at Arizona State University who has conducted extensive research on beans’ impact on overall health, says this nutritious food protects more than your ticker. “Beans have more protein and fiber than any other vegetable and have been shown to help digestion as well as lower LDL cholesterol, the bad kind,” she says. The soluble fiber in beans may help bind cholesterol in the intestines, so it doesn’t get absorbed in the body. And studies have also found that the antioxidants in beans keep normal cells from turning cancerous. Want to add beans to your diet, sans the smelly side effect that childhood rhyme also refers to? Like any fiber-packed food, work them in gradually and consistently, says Winham. Here, seven varieties with standout health perks, plus simple ways to cook them.
Also called turtle beans, black beans are loaded with those all-important free-radical fighters known as antioxidants. Studies analyzing a variety of beans found that the darker the seed coat, the higher the level of antioxidants. According to research published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, black beans carry approximately 10 times the amount of antioxidants per gram as oranges.
Try it: Blend 2 cups black beans with a tablespoon chili powder, 1 teaspoon cumin, and a handful of fresh cilantro. Add in 1 cup fresh, whole-wheat bread crumbs, a dash hot salsa, and a lightly beaten egg. Panfry in a nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, and serve topped with salsa or sour cream for an alternative to crab cakes.
Best known as the main ingredient in falafel and hummus, chickpeas are high in fiber, protein, calcium, and iron. They’re also loaded with manganese—you’ll get over 84 percent of the recommended daily value per cup—important for the development and maintenance of strong bones.
Try it: In a large saucepan, combine 1 chopped onion, 2 cups peeled diced yams, 1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained, 1 cup brown rice, and 4 cups vegetable stock. Simmer until rice is tender, about 45 minutes; stir in 1/4 cup peanut butter, salt, pepper, and chili sauce to taste.
Named for their characteristic shape, kidney beans range in color from dark red to white; the latter are known as cannellini beans. Kidney beans top most other beans in iron content, providing nearly 30 percent of the recommended daily value in 1 cup. They’re also one of the few beans to contain vitamin K, important for bone health.
Try it: Red beans figure prominently in many Asian desserts. Make a simple paste by blending 1 14-ounce can drained kidney beans with 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons honey, and a tablespoon light olive oil. Heat to desired consistency; smear on toast, or bake in wontons or mochi (a sticky rice treat) for a sweet snack.
They may be a dreaded side dish for most kids, but there’s good reason parents make all sorts of ploys to get their little ones to eat them: Lima beans are high in potassium and molybdenum, a trace mineral responsible for detoxifying sulfites—unhealthy preservatives often added to cured meats and other processed foods that can cause allergy symptoms, headaches, and even seizures.
Try it: In a blender, process 1 can drained lima beans with 1/4 cup tahini (sesame-seed paste) or olive oil, 3/4 cup plain, low-fat yogurt, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1 teaspoon cumin, and chopped cilantro and minced garlic cloves to taste.
Edamame (green soybeans)
This staple in Asian cuisine is considered a perfect meat substitute when it comes to protein: Edamame contain all the essential amino acids, and they’re also high in omega-3s, carrying nearly half the recommended daily value in one cup.
Try it: Combine 1 cup shelled edamame beans with a tablespoon Cajun seasoning and a teaspoon light olive oil. Spread on a cookie sheet, and bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Mix in a bowl with rice crackers.
Most of us know this mild, creamy variety for its use in baked beans, but navy beans are also known for—and named after—their role in the US Navy diet during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A good source of iron, folate, and calcium, navy beans are also a great way to get thiamin (vitamin B1), which has been shown to help strengthen memory and cognitive function.
Try it: For a more nutritious stuffing, heat a chopped onion and 1/2 cup diced green peppers in a skillet coated with cooking spray. Add 1 14-ounce package whole-grain bread cubes, 1 can drained navy beans, 4 cups chicken broth, and herb seasoning to taste.
Though all beans in Winham’s studies had cholesterol-lowering powers, these spotted beans were definitely a standout. They’re rich in antioxidants and fiber, and 1 cup also gives you 73 percent of the recommended daily value of folate, which has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and prevent birth defects.
Try it: Puree a can of drained, rinsed pinto beans with a handful of fresh cilantro, juice of a lime wedge, and 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cumin and chili. Spread on whole-wheat tortillas, and top with chopped, fresh tomatoes and vegetables and reduced-fat shredded cheddar or Mexican blend cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, and serve with salsa.
Wendy Mcmillan is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado.