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When I first introduced this section ten years ago, I had some hesitations about including them in a book on the world’s healthiest foods. That I would have any hesitation at all may seem surprising to you, but at the time I was very influenced by the writing of professor Loren Cordain, Ph.D., an authority on ancestral diets and one of the original founders of the Paleo movement.

Cordain—and most of the Paleo gurus who came after him—shun beans because of their lectin content (more on that in a moment). But in the years since, I’ve come to believe that the lectins in beans are only a problem for about 10 percent of the population. For everyone else, beans are superfoods.

You’ll read all about the positive aspects of beans in the coming entries: Beans are loaded with fiber, which has been associated with lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The exploding research on the microbiome and gut health in general has shown us that fiber does even more than we thought it did ten years ago. Fiber feeds the good bacteria in your gut, helping to keep your gut healthy while promoting the creation of important compounds in the gut like butyric acid.

Beans contain protein. They digest very slowly, providing sustained energy and making them an ideal food for those who need to avoid the blood-sugar roller coaster. And they’re loaded with protective phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins.

And Now the Bad News: Lectins Spell Trouble for Some

Lectins are substances contained in legumes and grains that originally evolved to fight off insect predators. But a portion of the lectin can bind with tissues in our body and create problems. Loren Cordain, Ph.D.—the aforementioned Paleo guru and a highly respected researcher at the University of Colorado—published a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition detailing a theory that dairy foods, legumes, grains, and yeast may be partly to blame for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases in genetically susceptible people, due in part to the lectin molecule.

According to Cordain, the lectins in food are known to increase intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”). Lectins allow partially digested food proteins and remnants of gut bacteria to spill into the bloodstream. That’s why Cordain calls lectins “cellular Trojan horses.” They make the intestines easier to penetrate, impairing the immune system’s ability to fight off food, and bacterial fragments that leak into the bloodstream. In his highly regarded book, The Paleo Diet, which is based on a lifetime of respected nutritional research into hunter-gatherer diets, Cordain lists all beans in his foods-to-avoid list.

Is this something the average person should be concerned about? I no longer believe it is. Obviously, beans have huge health benefits if you’re not one of the people who responds badly to them. If you’re one of the (admittedly small) group of people who has unexplained symptoms possibly related to food, it might be worthwhile to avoid beans till you figure out what’s going on.

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Beans are one of the best sources of fiber on the planet. And people in most industrialized societies consume much less fiber than they should. I’ve been singing the praises of fiber for as long as I’ve been writing and talking about nutrition. Fiber protects our health by slowing the entrance of food into the bloodstream and therefore helping to prevent blood sugar spikes. We now know that fiber also serves as food for the good microbes in your gut, and the importance of gut health (and the microbiome in general) is only now beginning to be appreciated. We do know that higher-fiber diets are associated with lower risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Consider this: Our Paleolithic ancestors got anywhere from 50 to 100 g of fiber a day in their diet. The National Cancer Institute—not exactly a hotbed of nutritional radicalism—recommends at least 25 g a day, as do the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The position paper on dietary fiber and colon cancer of the American Gastroenterological Association states that “reasonable recommendations based on currently available data” argue for a recommended daily fiber intake of at least 30 to 35 g a day. In my book, Smart Fat: Eat More Fat, Lose More Weight, Get Healthy Now, I recommend that people consume at a minimum 30 grams of fiber a day.

Want to know the average daily intake in the United States?

Eleven grams.

Beans Provide the Fiber Missing from Our Diet

So, premise number one is that fiber is good. Premise number two is that we don’t get nearly enough of it. Adding beans to your diet is a great way to correct that deficit. If for no other reason than their fiber content, beans deserve a place on your plate. Overall, a cup (172 g) of generic cooked beans will give you anywhere from 11 g (kidney beans) to an amazing 17 g (adzuki) per serving. That’s phenomenal. There’s no other food I know of that is as good a source of this important food component.

There’s more good stuff, though most of it is related to the fiber content. Beans lower cholesterol, but if you’ve read my book The Great Cholesterol Myth, you know that I don’t think that matters very much. Nonetheless, according to Patti Bazel Weil, R.D., nutrition educator at the University of Kentucky, a cup (172 g) of cooked beans a day can lower your total cholesterol by up to 10 percent in a mere six weeks. In fact, a school study showed that in only three weeks of eating 1/2 cup (weight will vary) of navy and pinto beans per day, the cholesterol of the male subjects was lowered by 19 percent.

Beans Are the Ultimate Blood Sugar Regulator

Beans—or at least the fiber in them—have major consequences for those with diabetes and blood sugar challenges. The soluble fiber in beans influences the rate by which glucose is absorbed. And a significant amount of research dating back to the 1970s has shown that large amounts of fiber in the diet improves hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Low-glycemic diets were on the cutting edge of nutrition when I first wrote this book, but have since become well-recognized as being one of the healthiest dietary strategies around. They’re routinely recommended—even by the nutrition and medical establishment—for diabetics, those with weight challenges, and those with metabolic syndrome; frankly, they should probably be recommended for everyone. And beans are the ultimate low-glycemic food. Their high fiber content means they raise blood sugar very, very slowly, and eating high-fiber foods like beans has been shown in several studies to improve glycemic control—the regulation of blood sugar and insulin.

Then there’s cancer. Based on analysis of food questionnaires in the Nurses’ Health Study II, researchers found a significant reduced frequency of breast cancer in those women who consumed a higher intake of common beans or lentils. What’s more, it didn’t take all that much to produce the result: Eating beans or lentils two (or more) times a week resulted in a 24 percent reduced risk!

It’s reasonable to assume that some of the anticancer effect comes from other compounds in beans besides the fiber. One phytochemical that is found in beans—diosgenin—appears to inhibit cancer cells from multiplying. And phytochemicals in beans such as saponins, protease inhibitors, and phytic acid appear to protect cells from the type of genetic damage that can lead to cancer. In laboratory studies, saponins have shown the ability to inhibit the reproduction of cancer cells and slow the growth of tumors; protease inhibitors have shown the ability to slow the division of cancer cells; and phytic acid has shown the ability to significantly slow the progression of tumors. According to one study listed on the website of the American Institute for Cancer Research, men who consumed the most beans had a 38 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than men who consumed the least.

Why Red Beans Take the Cake

Finally, if that weren’t enough, there’s the vitamin content of beans. They’re loaded with antioxidants. The USDA’s ranking of foods by antioxidant capacity lists small dried red beans as having the highest antioxidant capacity per serving size of any food tested; in fact, of the four top-scoring foods, three were beans (red beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans). Many bean varieties have a lot of folic acid (especially adzukis, black-eyed peas, lentils, and pinto beans), which have serious benefits for the heart; there’s also magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium and—especially in red kidney beans—an important enzyme-enhancing mineral called molybdenum.

Beans are also a good source of protein, typically containing 15 g per cup (172 g). And unlike most commercial, factory-farmed animal protein sources, they don’t come with any steroids, hormones, or antibiotics.

Garbanzo Beans (chickpeas)

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Chickpeas are beans with a complexion problem! Though other lentils and beans have a smooth-looking “face,” chickpeas have bumps that, if you look closely, resemble a chick’s beak (hence the name?). But looks aren’t everything. The chickpea was one of the first cultivated crops, and it is one of the most popular legumes in the world.

Chickpeas are beans with a complexion problem! Though other lentils and beans have a smooth-looking “face,” chickpeas have bumps that, if you look closely, resemble a chick’s beak (hence the name?). But looks aren’t everything. The chickpea was one of the first cultivated crops, and it is one of the most popular legumes in the world.

Chickpeas belong to the class of food called legumes or pulses, which also includes beans, lentils, and peas. Eating more legumes can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. In a large study of almost 10,000 men and women in the United States, those who ate pulses four or more times a week had a 22 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease and an 11 percent lower risk of cardiovascular events than those who ate pulses less than once a week. This health benefit was independent of other health habits.

And speaking of fiber, garbanzo beans weigh in at a remarkable 12.5 g per cup (240 g). That makes it a fiber heavyweight in my book, right up there with lentils (16 g). Virtually every study that has looked at high-fiber diets has found some measure of health benefits, sometimes striking ones. The results of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study showed that Europeans who ate the most fiber had an almost 40 percent lower risk of colon cancer than those who ate the least. As much as I promoted fiber back when the first edition of this book came out, the latest research on the microbiome shows that fiber is even more important than we thought it was because it makes an important contribution to gut health. Garbanzo beans are a great way to add fiber to your diet.

Garbanzos Curb Overeating

Fiber—particularly soluble fiber—can also lower blood cholesterol levels and slow the absorption of sugar, which is hugely important both for people with diabetes and for people with any blood sugar challenges (metabolic syndrome). Soluble fiber also serves as food for the good microbes in your gut. And a high-fiber diet will probably reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Legumes in general cause less of a rise in blood glucose than foods such as potatoes or almost any wheat-based food such as cereal.

Eating a high-fiber diet may also help with weight loss. High-fiber foods generally require more chewing time, giving your body extra time to register the fact that you’re no longer hungry, so you’re less likely to overeat. A high-fiber diet also tends to fill you up longer. And high-fiber diets tend to have more volume for fewer calories, which has been shown in research by Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., at Pennsylvania State University to be a boon to weight management. In my book, Living Low Carb, I suggested that the number-one supplement for weight loss was fiber, and well more than a decade later, I still stand by that statement!

Chickpeas also have calcium and magnesium in a great 1:1 ratio, a decent amount of folate, and a ton of heart-healthy potassium (477 mg per cup [240 g]!). They even contain the powerful antioxidant mineral selenium. All this, plus the vegetable equivalent of 2 ounces of protein!

Noted natural-foods expert Rebecca Wood warns that if your only contact with chickpeas has been at a salad bar, you’re missing out on some serious flavor. She suggests simmering them till tender with garlic and toasted cumin seeds and then getting ready to enjoy one of the creamiest, tastiest beans on the planet. You can also cook, season, and roast them for a snack that replaces nuts and chips.

Green Peas

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When I was a kid, these were my favorite vegetable. I used to melt butter over them, then salt them, and mix them with my mashed potatoes. I loved it. Go figure.

Peas are legumes that originated in western Asia. In Switzerland, traces of peas have been found near homesites, where they were probably being eaten during the Bronze Age, more than 5,000 years ago. Traveling from Greece to India, the pea arrived in China during the seventh century, where it was named ho tou, or “foreign legume.” Peas were popular during the Middle Ages in Europe, being easy to grow, inexpensive, hearty, and a source of protein.

There are probably more than 1,000 varieties of garden peas, the most common of which are the smooth peas you usually find frozen in the supermarket. Some varieties, like the snow pea (see here) have edible pods. Peas are available fresh in the pod, dried (either whole or split), and frozen. They’re also available canned, but never in a million years would I recommend that you eat them. One reason they’re such a dull green is that the health-promoting chlorophyll is destroyed by the heat of the canning process, along with most of the other nutrients. My opinion on canned vegetables in general is that they’re next to useless.

Peas Are Packed with Vitamins A and K

Peas are a little high in sugar as legumes (or vegetables) go, but that’s balanced by the fact that 100 g—a little more than 1/2 cup—of cooked peas has 5.5 g of fiber. Peas also have 42 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin A, and 5 g of vegetable protein. They’re also low calorie (78 calories for 100 g). And 100 g of peas contains 30 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin K, an important vitamin that helps anchor calcium to the places in the bone where you need it to be, thus making this vitamin an essential part of a nutrition program for bone health.

Dried peas don’t hold their shape as well as the fresh (or frozen) peas, and their taste is a little earthier than the sweeter fresh ones. They’re best used in purees, soups, and dishes that need some thickening. Dried peas, being more concentrated and dense than the fresh variety (which are more than 70 percent water) are even higher in fiber—1/2 cup (112 g) of dried split peas has more than 8 g. Not many foods can make that claim.

Image Lentils

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Lentils are small, disk-shaped legumes that grow on an annual bushlike plant. Lentils are native to central Asia. They’re used throughout the Mediterranean region and the Middle East and are especially popular in India, where they’re cooked to a puree and called dahl, an amazing-tasting lentil curry. The crisp Indian crackers called pappadams are made with lentil flour. In the United States, lentils are often enjoyed in soup.

Lentils are dried as soon as they ripen and then sold that way. There are at least fifty varieties of lentils in addition to the brown variety most common in the West, with colors that range from yellow to red-orange to green. Lentils are distinguished from beans in that they don’t contain sulfur and therefore don’t produce gas. So anyone wanting the benefits of high fiber without the social unpleasantness associated with beans would do well to check out this cool little legume.

The history of lentils goes way back. The earliest archaeological dating of lentils is from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic layers of Franchthi Cave in Greece (13,000 to 9,500 years ago), and from the end-Mesolithic at Mureybit and Tell Abu Hureya in Syria, and about 8000 BCE in the Jericho area of Palestine. The ancient Greeks used lentils in a variety of ways, including breadmaking. Catholics who could not afford to buy fish during Lent ate lentils. The double convex optical lens gets its name “lenticular” from the shape of the lentil.

Lentils Help Treat High Cholesterol and High Blood Sugar

The real claim to fame for lentils is the fact that they’re so loaded with fiber, especially soluble fiber. Soluble fiber breaks down as it passes though the digestive tract, forming a gel. It also helps control blood sugar by delaying the emptying of the stomach and retarding the entry of sugar into the bloodstream. This is why high-fiber foods like lentils have such a low glycemic load. Because fiber slows the digestion of foods, it can help blunt the sudden spikes in blood sugar and insulin that can cause you to be hungry again an hour after eating a low-fiber meal. Those constant spikes in blood sugar and insulin can also contribute to diabetes and can make weight very hard to take off. High-fiber diets have been consistently associated with better glucose control for both diabetics and nondiabetics, and with better management of weight. High-fiber diets also are associated with lower risks for cancer and heart disease.

In recent years, a third type of fiber has gotten a lot of research attention—it’s called resistant starch. (See here.) Lentils are a great source of resistant starch, which serves as food for the good bacteria in your gut. You get the most resistant starch when you cool the lentils—resistant starch is formed during the cooling process—but lentils have so much of it that even if you eat them warm (as most people do), they still have plenty.

A cup (198 g) of lentils contains a nice amount of protein—about 18 g. But best of all, that same cup contains a whopping 16 g of fiber. That’s an awesome combination, and a rare one. Lentils are also a terrific source of folate and a good source of at least seven minerals. One cup provides 37 percent of the Daily Value for iron and 49 percent of the Daily Value for manganese, an important trace mineral that’s essential for growth, reproduction, wound healing, peak brain function, and the proper metabolism of sugars, insulin, and cholesterol.

Tamarind

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Put simply, tamarind is a fruit with benefits.

That fruit is also a legume. It comes from a tree known as Tamarindus indica, which is native to Africa, but grows in many other tropical regions in the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The tree produces pods that kind of look like edamame, only they’re a light orange. Inside the pods are seeds, with a fibrous pulp around them. That pulp starts off sour but thickens into a kind of paste as it ripens, and the taste becomes more sweet-sour.

So what are the benefits I mentioned earlier? Let’s start with its antimicrobial effect.

Research shows that extract of tamarind has antibacterial properties against at least seven different microbes, including E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes staph infections. It’s believed that the antibacterial effect of the plant is due to its lupeol content.

Tamarind and tamarind extract are used for abdominal pain, diarrhea, dysentery, some bacterial infections, parasites, wound healing, constipation, and inflammation (Kuru, 2014). And it’s a rich source of phytochemicals and most of the essential amino acids. One research paper noted that tamarind has “a good potential to contribute to affordable local health care based on traditional medicine.”

Tamarind is high in nutrients. A cup (120 g) of the pulp has magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), and niacin. Although it doesn’t contain spectacularly high amounts of these nutrients, it does have a decent amount—28 percent of the RDI for magnesium, for example, and 34 percent of the RDI for vitamin B1. (Of course, I think the RDIs for most nutrients are ridiculously low, but still.)

My colleague, Kris Gunnars of Authority Nutrition, notes that you can use the fruit to “add a sour note to savory dishes,” using it, for example, instead of lemon. You can find the fruit in the form of raw pods (which you open to remove the pulp), a pressed block (the seeds and shell are removed, and the pulp is pressed into a block), or as a concentrate (a pulp that has been boiled down, and may have preservatives added).

Just be aware that tamarind is high in sugar. Gunnars suggests that the healthiest way to eat this fruit is either raw or as an ingredient in savory dishes.

THE EXPERTS’ TOP TEN LISTS

Steven Masley, M.D., L.L.C.

Steven Masley, M.D., L.L.C., is the host of one of the most successful and popular PBS health shows of all time, Thirty Days to a Younger Heart. He’s a physician, nutritionist, speaker, researcher, and a best-selling author.

I’ve worked closely with Steven—he was my coauthor on Smart Fat: Eat More Fat, Lose More Weight, Get Healthy Now, and he’s one of the smartest M.D.s I know. He’s a fellow of the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians, plus he’s also a fellow of the American College of Nutrition. (Fun fact: He’s a trained chef, having spent a year studying at the Four Seasons.)

Having hung out with him for about a year while we were working on Smart Fat, I know that Steven routinely seeks out foods that have a documented benefit on heart and brain health.

1. Green cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, Brussel sprouts). Eating 1 cup (weights vary) of green eafy vegetables each day can help extend life expectancy by eleven years. Green leafy veggies protect you from aging and are loaded with fiber, vitamin K, mixed folates, potassium, and healthy plant pigments. And the crucifers have compounds that improve detoxification and reduce your risk for cancer.

2. Beets. The pigments in beets improve circulation, helping exercise performance and sexual function.

3. Wild salmon. This is one of the best sources of the anti-inflammatory long-chain omega-3 fats, plus a terrific source of protein, potassium, and selenium.

4. Extra-virgin olive oil. It provides fantastic flavor to salads and a wide variety of dishes, plus helps lower your risk for heart attacks, strokes, and memory loss. Cook with it on medium or lower heat.

5. Avocado/avocado oil. Avocados are a rich source of fiber, monounsaturated oil, potassium, and they taste fantastic. Avocado oil has become my favorite cooking oil, for its delicate flavor, its healthy monounsaturated fat, and the fact that it tolerates medium-high heat without being damaged.

6. Berries and cherries. The anthocyanins (pigments) in berries and cherries block inflammation and oxidation, and both are a wonderful source of vitamins. They taste fantastic whether eaten raw, added to a smoothie, or used in a recipe. Consuming more berries will help prevent heart disease and protect against memory loss.

7. Dark chocolate. What’s not to like about dark chocolate? It protects your arteries from plaque growth, protects against memory loss, and improves blood pressure control. It’s delicious and packed with fiber and magnesium. Purchase varieties not loaded with sugar; look for bars with at least 74 percent cocoa.

8. Red wine. One to two servings of red wine with dinner improves blood sugar control, protects you from heart attack and stroke, improves cognitive function and prevents memory loss. It helps with digestion, kills harmful microbes, and makes dinner taste wonderful. The challenge is limiting it to one or two 4.5-ounce servings, and never drinking more than three per day; excessive alcohol intake of any type—including red wine—is harmful.

9. Curry spices. Curry spice lowers oxidation and inflammation, protects the brain from cognitive decline, and decreases the risk for cancer. The most studied component of curry spice is turmeric, which contains the active ingredient curcumin.

10. Italian herb seasoning. This combination of herbs is my favorite cooking seasoning. It adds fantastic flavor to almost anything I’m preparing and the combination of herbs lowers oxidation and inflammation.

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