The health benefits of beans

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As a small boy, I distinctly remember relishing meals of which baked beans were a part. Like a lot of people, I enjoyed their taste and texture. However, small boys being what they are, I also used to relish their after effects too. Baked beans at tea-time would mean an evening of great fun to be had while me and my two brothers conducted a farting competition in front of the TV. Our wind-breaking antics would fill the air with malodorous fumes and regular associated cries which included ‘he who smelt it, dealt it’, ‘silent but violent’ and ‘Better out than in’. While our flatulence might not have gone down too well with our sisters, we boys would take great delight in the fact that we were full of beans.

I know I shouldn’t admit this, but their wind-breaking effects of beans means they still have a certain allure for me. What has changed, however, is that I have also become interested in some of their other bodily effects. Regular readers of this column will know that one of my nutritional preoccupations is to based the diet around foods which release sugar relatively slowly into the bloodstream. Such foods not only give a sustained supply of energy to the body, but also reduce the risk of a slew of biochemical imbalances that are increasingly being linked with chronic health problems including obesity, raised levels of blood fats, heart disease and diabetes. The speed an extent of blood sugar release of any food is expressed as something known as its glycaemic index, with values of 50 or less are generally considered to be desirable. Beans such as kidney beans, chick peas and butter beans all have satisfyingly low glycaemic indices of about 30.

Some varieties of beans, notably chick peas, are rich in plant substances known as phytoestrogens which have an action similar to, though far weaker than, the hormone oestrogen in the body. Some scientists have speculated that consuming a diet rich in phytoestrogens may help protect against heart disease. Research suggests that one effect of phytoestrogens is to lower blood levels of the blood fats low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides that are linked with heart disease and stroke. One study, found that feeding rats with chick peas brought about significant reductions in the levels of both these forms of unhealthy fats. However, even beans that do not contain much in the way of phytoestrogens may have benefits on fat levels in the bloodstream on account of their rich fibre content. Beans also tend to be rich in folic acid which, amongst other benefits, appears to help reduce the risk of heart disease.

In one study, eating four or more servings of beans or lentils each week was found to confer significant protection from heart disease. While baked beans are seen as a staple food by many of us, I would tend to avoid these on account of their added sugar and salt. Cooking beans from their dried form can be laborious and time-consuming. An alternative is to buy canned beans, though I suggest these are rinsed well to remove as much of the sugar and salt that is added to the canned water. Adding these to soups, and casseroles, or as an addition to or basis for a salad makes good sense. For those looking for a relatively cheap and nutritious food, it really does help to spill the beans.

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