For centuries legumes, or dry beans as they are commonly known, have been a staple food in the Mediterranean countries where they have played an important part in the fight against heart disease. Legumes contain essential minerals and vitamins such as iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, zinc, potassium, folic acid, and some of the B-complex vitamins. Legumes are low in fat and sodium which make them an ideal food to keep high cholesterol and high blood pressure at bay. Dry beans are also high in soluble fiber, the kind that lowers cholesterol, and to top it all, they can help balance your budget because they are very inexpensive; in sum, an almost perfect food.
In the past few years, research has paid a lot of attention to the connection between regular legume consumption and a lower incidence of heart disease. One study examined the relationship between soluble fiber intake and the risk of heart disease on 9,632 men and women over a period of 19 years. It showed that consuming dry beans four times or more per week, compared with less than once a week, lowered the risk of heart disease by 22 percent. Let’s see why legumes are so helpful in this heart business.
Fiber: A Quick Overview
Fiber is what gives plants its structure. It’s found mainly in fruits, vegetables, dry beans, nuts, and seeds, as well as whole grains. It is the portion of the plant that our system can not break down because it doesn’t have the appropriate mechanisms to do it. Consequently, our cells have very little use for fiber.
Fiber can be soluble and insoluble, and most plant foods contain a combination of both. Both types are important for our health. Let’s first look at soluble fiber because it is the one that lowers cholesterol. Soluble fiber means that the fiber dissolves in water and forms a jelly-like paste with other foods in the intestine. This feature is very important, as we’ll see, because it reduces the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood. Soluble fiber not only lowers LDL cholesterol, the “bad” guy, but also raises HDL cholesterol, the “good” guy.
Insoluble fiber does not have any effect on cholesterol but it is very beneficial for our whole body because it acts as a natural laxative and removes toxic waste by promoting regular bowel movements. Let’s take a look now at how soluble fiber does lower cholesterol.
The Cholesterol – Fiber Connection
Bile, produced by the liver, is a substance necessary to break down the fat we ingest in food. To produce bile, the liver grabs the cholesterol from the blood, converts it into bile, and sends it to the gallbladder where it’s stored until needed. Then, when we eat, the gallbladder sends the bile to the intestines to help break down the fat portion of the food. Once the bile has done its job in the intestines, one of two things can happen:
There is one more benefit from eating this type of fiber. When our meal includes soluble fiber, this fiber gets fermented by bacteria in the colon. This fermentation produces certain compounds that prevent the formation of cholesterol. This results in lower levels of cholesterol circulating in our blood vessels.
Protection from Homocysteine!
Another benefit of including dry beans as part of your diet is the effect they have on homocysteine. Homocysteine is a substance our body needs to produce certain compounds vital for our organs to function properly. To produce homocysteine, our bodies need adequate amounts of vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid. When any of these vitamins are lacking, homocysteine is not converted into the necessary compounds and spills into the circulation. Many studies have shown that when homocysteine accumulates in our system, it becomes toxic even in small amounts, increasing the risk of heart disease.
High levels of homocysteine concentrations in our blood may cause a heart attack or a stroke, even among people who have normal cholesterol levels. Abnormal levels of homocysteine appear to:
To prevent homocysteine from accumulating in your blood you need to eat foods that contain folate as well as vitamins B6 and B12. Dry beans or legumes are an excellent source of folate and contain moderate amounts of B6. Recent data show that the practice of fortifying foods with folate has reduced the average level of homocysteine in the U.S. population.
Do You Need to Eat Dry Beans Every Day?
You don’t have to. Based on studies conducted during more than 25 years, nutrition experts at the Michigan State University concluded that eating 2 to 4 cups of cooked dry beans every week can protect us against heart disease. The nice thing is that you have multiple choices in your dry bean selection such as: Black Beans, Garbanzo Beans, Great Northerns, Lima Beans, Navy Beans, Pink Beans, Pinto Beans, Red Beans, Red Kidney Beans, Soybeans, Black-Eyed Peas, Lentils, and Split Peas.
If you’re interested in ways to include a variety of legumes into your diet, then you might be interested in the recipes that I offer in my book “Your Heart Needs the Mediterranean Diet!”
Have a great day,
P.S. As a convenience, I’ve also included links to the following Heart & Blood Pressure articles:
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