How to Include Legumes and Beans in a Healthy Diet

Nutritional Value and Preparation Tips

Beans and legumes

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Legumes are plants or seeds belonging to the Fabaceae family. The fruit itself is a pod filled with dry seeds, including a variety of dry beans, which can be eaten by people and animals. Grain legumes such as lentils and peas are called pulses. These varieties are mainly grown for human consumption and feed for livestock.

Nutritional Value of Beans

The nutritional value of one half-cup serving of cooked, unsalted legumes varies, but most deliver a high percentage of protein per calorie.

Calories

The number of calories in beans and legumes will depend on preparation and serving size. As an energy source, beans and legumes will help fuel your day-to-day activities and exercise routine.

Carbohydrates

Your body uses carbohydrates for energy. Beans and legumes contain fiber, particularly soluble fiber. Soluble fiber delays gastric emptying which means it can help to keep us full. Fiber can also promote digestive regularity.

Beans and legumes are also filled with resistant starches (which do not get readily absorbed in the intestines), so they won’t cause spikes or drops in blood sugar levels.

Beans and legumes are considered a low-glycemic index food.Some studies have suggested that a low GI diet may help reduce cholesterol levels but results have been inconsistent.

Fats

Preparation can influence the fat content of beans and legumes, but naturally beans and legumes are low in fat. One notable exception is peanuts, which contain much higher levels of mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

Protein

For those focused on building muscle, beans are a staple of protein-rich diets. For those eating a plant-based diet, the quality protein found in beans and legumes is essential. High-protein snacks and meals keep you feeling satisfied because your digestive system takes longer to digest these foods compared to simple carbohydrates.

The energy your body gets from protein-dense foods is released in a sustained way throughout the day, meaning you won’t get the “crash” that often comes with sugary snacks that are sources of quick, but not long-lasting, energy.

Micronutrients

Even though they’re small, legumes are packed with essential nutrients including B vitamins, folate, zinc, calcium, and iron. Micronutrients are vital to the proper functioning of all your major organs and body systems, like your heart, immune system, and brain.

Deficiencies in even a single type of micronutrient can lead to specific health problems. For example, having low iron can cause anemia and having too little vitamin A can affect your vision.

Like other plant-based foods, legumes do not have any cholesterol and add little, if any, fat to your diet. Canned beans are preserved with sodium and are not considered a low sodium food. When using canned beans, reduce the sodium by 40%-50% by washing them thoroughly with water.

Here’s a specific breakdown of the nutritional info for some of the most popular legumes and beans according to USDA data. Nutritional information is listed for a (cooked) 100-gram serving which is equivalent to about a half cup.

Per 100-gram serving Calories Carbs Protein  Fiber
Adzuki beans 128 24.8 7.5 7.3
Black beans 132 23.7 8.9 8.7
Blackeyed peas 150 22.9 8.2 6.2
Broad beans (fava beans) 110 19.6 7.6 5.4
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) 164 27.4 8.9 7.6
Edamame 121 8.9 11.9 5.2
Great Northern beans 118 21.1 8.3 7
Green peas 84 15.6 5.4 5.5
Kidney beans 127 22.8 8.7 7.4
Lentils 116 20.1 9.0 7.9
Lima beans 123 23.6 6.8 5.4
Mung beans 105 19.2 7.0 7.6
Navy beans 140 26 8.2 10.5
Pinto beans 143 26.2 9.0 9
Soybeans 172 8.4 18.2 6
Split peas 118 21.1 8.3 8.3
White beans 139 25.1 9.7 6.3

Health Benefits of Legumes

In addition to being nutritional powerhouses, when legumes are a regular part of your diet, research has shown they help lower blood pressure and reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Legumes are also inexpensive, can often be bought in bulk, are versatile, and can be safely stored for long periods of time.

Allergies and Interactions

Some people may not be able to safely consume certain types of legumes. Peanuts and soybeans are among the most common legume allergies and can also be very serious. Peanut allergies can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis that requires immediate medical treatment.

If you're allergic to one type of legume you may need to avoid other types due to cross-reactivity.

Some people with peanut allergies are so sensitive that they don't even have to eat the nuts to get sick—just breathing in dust from a peanut shell can trigger a reaction. For this reason, many people with peanut allergies carry a special medicine called epinephrine (Epi-Pen) that they can administer (or someone else can) if they develop an anaphylactic reaction.

If a person is told they are allergic to one type of legume, they may be advised to avoid other types due to a phenomenon called cross-reactivity. In this situation, a person with one type of legume allergy could have a similar reaction to another.

One example is the cross-reactivity between peanuts and lupine. While most people in the United States probably think of lupine as a pretty plant, it's commonly used for eating in other parts of the world. When used in flour for baking, for instance, a person may not realize they are ingesting the allergen.

If you have a food allergy, it's always important to check ingredient lists and ask about ingredients in foods others prepare for you, especially when traveling.

Canned vs. Cooked

Both dried and canned beans can provide benefits. When you use dried beans, you have more control over the ingredients used to prepare them. Most importantly, you can choose to cook them without salt. Dried beans are also less expensive.

But canned beans are convenient, making them more accessible to people who have less time to cook. Many canned varieties are higher in sodium, but you can rinse them in water to reduce the sodium content. You can also buy brands that use kombu to increase digestibility and reduce bloating.

Popular Legumes

There are lots of ways to incorporate different varieties of legumes into your meal plan. Here are some popular choices to try.

Black-Eyed Peas

One cup of cooked black-eyed peas has 11 grams fiber and 13 grams protein. For meat-eaters, black-eyed peas go well with pork and bacon, but also work well in veggie-based soups and salads.

Chickpeas

Also known garbanzo beans, 1 cup of chickpeas has over 14 grams protein and 12 grams fiber. They can be eaten on their own or made into popular side dishes, like hummus. Their nutty flavor makes them a good source of protein for topping salads. They can also be dried, seasoned, and roasted for a poppable, kid-friendly snack.

Green Peas

One cup of peas has 5 grams fiber and about 6 grams protein. Compared to other legumes, peas are lower in calories (a one-cup serving of cooked peas has 83 calories). Bought fresh or grown in your garden, peas are nutrient-packed and tasty. Bagged, frozen peas are also a cheap and convenient addition to any meal.

Cannellini Beans

Cannellini beans, also known as white kidney beans, are large white beans with a smooth texture. Unlike other legumes, white kidney beans hold their shape well when you cook them. If you're looking for a bean to add to a dish whole, white kidney beans are a great option. One cup of cannellini beans has about 15 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber.

Northern Beans

Great Northern beans are similar to other white beans but generally smaller and grainy in texture. Despite the differences, they'll work well as a substitute for any dish that calls for white beans. One cup of Great Northern beans has 8 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber.

Navy Beans

Navy beans
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

When you think of classic baked beans, you're probably thinking of Navy beans. The small white beans have a mild flavor and softer texture. When cooked, they tend to easily break apart, so they're best used for purees, stews, and soups. One cup of Navy beans has 15 grams of protein and 19 grams of fiber.

Pinto Beans

One cup of pinto beans has about 15 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber. Pinto beans work well whether mashed up or whole, so they work in many different types of recipes. The beans are central to many popular Mexican dishes.

Cranberry Beans

Cranberry beans
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Also known as Roman beans or borlotti beans, one cup of cranberry beans has 17 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber. These medium-sized, soft, pink, and tan beans are one of the easiest to prepare, cooking up in less than 1 hour.

Kidney Beans

One of the largest beans you can buy, one cup of kidney beans has 17 grams of protein and over 16 grams of fiber. With their firm texture, kidney beans are usually the first choice for chili and stews.

Lima Beans

One cup of lima beans has 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber. These light-green beans, also known as butter beans, have a smooth texture and a nice flavor. Lima beans are a popular choice as a side dish but also make a tasty addition to soups, salads, and casseroles.

Lentils

While many legumes require prep work, lentils require no soaking, cook up quick, and can be added to many meals. With several varieties to choose from, including gold, red, and dark, if you've got 20 minutes to spare you can cook up a protein-rich, delicious meal.

Fava Beans

One cup of fava beans has 13 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber. Fava beans require a little more effort than other legumes, mostly because they come in thick pods that you'll need to shuck before cooking.

If you have the time to prepare them, fava beans are worth the extra work: they work well whether a recipe calls for firm or tender beans, can be seasoned and tossed on the grilled, and even snacked on as-is, popped fresh from the pod.

How to Prepare Beans

Cooking dry beans at home is easy and is the best way to retain legumes' health benefits. It does require a little planning, however. With the exception of lentils and split peas, dry beans need to be soaked for at least a couple of hours prior to cooking.

If you don't pre-soak your beans, make sure to add an extra hour or two to the cooking time.

By soaking the beans first, you'll soften them up—making them easier to cook and digest. The pre-soak also helps remove excess starch which can ferment in the intestines and cause bloating and gas. If you're using larger beans, try letting them sit for an overnight soak. Adding a little salt to your soak can also help shorten the beans' cooking time.

2 Ways to Soak Beans

  • The faster way: Place beans in a pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn off the heat. Let sit for an hour. Drain and rinse before cooking.
  • The traditional way: Fill a pot or bowl filled with water about 2 inches above the level of the beans. If salting, use 1 tablespoon of table salt or 2 tablespoons of coarse salt per pound of beans. Let soak for 4 to 12 hours. Drain and rinse before cooking.

If you don't pre-soak the beans, add another hour or 2 to the cooking time.

Cooking Beans

Once soaked, beans can be cooked according to the recipe you choose. When you're measuring, keep in mind that 1 cup of dried beans will yield around 3 cups of cooked beans.

You can use a slow-cooker or cook them on the stovetop. While cooking, be sure to cover the beans with 2 inches of liquid and to replace the liquid as it evaporates. Always cook at a low temperature and avoid stirring too much, which can break down the beans and release excess starch.

Smaller beans such as lentils or split peas take about 30 minutes to an hour to cook. Other types can take anywhere from 3 to 6 hours depending on their size. You'll know the beans are done when they are tender but not mushy. Leftover cooking liquid can be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months. Simply defrost and use as a base of vegetarian soup or stew.

Bean Recipes

Beans are remarkably versatile for cooking, salads, stir-fries, and even baking! Here are a few classic recipes, as well as a few new spins on old favorites, you can try.

How Beans Fit in Specific Diets

Beans and legumes are versatile, nutritious, tasty, and suitable for many different dietary goals and needs. However, some diets (particularly those followed by people with some bowel disorders) recommend avoiding them.

Low-Carb

Smaller servings of beans and legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, are encouraged on many low-carb diets. All types of legumes and beans can be included in a low-carb diet, but how they are prepared and served can greatly influence their nutritional value.

Making beans with sugar or lard (such as in baked beans) will change the nutritional composition of the meal, making the naturally low-fat, low-sugar food higher in those nutrients. Similarly, soups such as split pea are traditionally prepared with fatback—a tasty but less healthy fat that is best enjoyed in moderation.

Another important exception is peanuts. While peanuts are, by nature, a legume you’ll have to count them as a nut if you’re following a low-carb diet. For example, the South Beach Diet allows for one serving (2 tablespoons) of natural peanut butter (with no added oil or sugar).

Listed below is the carbohydrate content of each type of bean per 100-gram serving (cooked) listed from lowest to highest carb count. A 100-gram serving is about a half cup.

Carbohydrate Content
Soy beans 8.4
Edamame 8.9
Green peas 15.6
Mung beans 19.2
Fava beans 19.6
Lentils 20.1
Great northern beans 21.1
Split peas 21.1
Kidney beans 22.8
Blackeyed peas 22.9
Lima beans 23.6
Black beans 23.7
Adzuki beans 24.8
White beans 25.1
Navy beans 26
Pinto beans  26.2
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans) 27.4

Gluten-Free

Beans and legumes are suitable for a gluten-free diet. However, people who avoid gluten to manage certain digestive ailments may experience discomfort due to the high fiber content of some beans and legumes.

Low FODMAP

Given their high fiber content, people adhering to a low FODMAP diet are advised to limit, or even completely, avoid beans and legumes.

Common Questions

Do Beans Cause Gas?

Beans get a reputation for being a gas-producing food due to their rich fiber content. If you find you have some digestive discomfort, try cooking beans in different ways or pairing them with foods that can subdue some of the gas-inducing qualities. Try classic combinations like rice and beans, as opposed to pairing your legumes only with other high fiber foods like cruciferous vegetables. Increasing your fiber intake slowly and making sure you drink plenty of water can also help to reduce gas.

Do Beans Have More Protein Than Meat?

Usually no. But vegetarians and meat-eaters alike are impressed to discover that beans can be a great way to add protein to your diet.

How Much Do Beans Cost?

Beans of all kinds are often a college-kid staple because you can cook them up according to many different tastes, they're easy to store, and generally quite cheap to buy—especially in bulk.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows the price of dry pulses, like lentils, has been consistently affordable for consumers. Whether you're just planning meals for yourself or your whole family, beans are a low-cost, high-nutrition addition to your pantry.

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