Are Beans Healthy? Its Not What You Think

Beans are a confusing subject. Lots of people assume they’re a super food but its time we really ask: Are beans healthy? They’ve been touted as this nutrient-dense, protein-packed power food yet Paleo and Primal advocates say they are off limits. What’s the scoop? I can honestly say that beans and legumes are one of those foods that just won’t fit into the “sometimes” category for me. They are a “rarely” food. Yes, I love peanut butter as much as the next person but I’ve found I can easily satisfy that craving with sunflower butter (its amazing!) or cashew better.

Beans, peanuts and soybeans fall into a category called legumes. From the 10,000 foot view they look like they’re packed full of nutrients, but when you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that’s not really an accurate depiction. Here are some of the reasons you might want to re-think beans.

Phytic Acid/Phytates
The phytic acid in legumes binds to critical nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and copper and prevents them from being absorbed. So the stellar nutrient deck you’re looking at when you pick up a can of beans? It’s misleading. They phytates will keep much of that from ever being absorbed.

Protease Inhibitors
Proteases are the enzymes required to break down protein into it’s building blocks, amino acids, so they can be absorbed and utilized by the body. Legumes contain protease inhibitors, meaning they impair the breakdown of protein. Once again, the protein you think you’re getting based on the nutrition facts is misleading. These protease inhibitors keep much of that protein from being broken down for use by the body.

Saponins freak me out. No lie. These anti-nutrients actually have the ability to poke holes in the outer membrane of your red blood cells leading to inflammation and, in sensitive individuals or after repeated exposure, can actually cause your red blood cells to rupture.

Lectins are proteins within legumes that actually evolved as toxins to protect the legume from predators. Unfortunately, because lectins are capable of crossing the protective barrier within your digestive tract, these toxins have been associated with tremendous inflammation and autoimmune disease.

You have to check out this amazing article from The Paleo Diet that points out that based on this collection of anti-nutrients, legumes actually deliver 66% less protein than chicken or turkey and 61% less than beef, pork or seafood.

It is important to note that nuts also contain a few of these anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid. However, they do contain slightly fewer than legumes but more importantly, we don’t rely on nuts as a primary source of calories and nutrients the way many people do beans. We also tend to eat nuts in smaller portions. There’s no question that you should take care with nuts and not consider them a dominant source of nutrients or protein but legumes are definitely a bigger offender!

With all that said, I’m not condemning beans and legumes, I’m just sharing why I choose to avoid them. There are certainly FAR more significant dietary threats like processed foods and artificial ingredients. However, there are also healthier choices than beans and legumes and there’s a reason beans and legumes don’t fit into the paleo and primal schema. For fat loss and optimal health, I choose to avoid them and I wanted you to know why.

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7 replies
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      Great! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Remember that all foods are along a spectrum. Are beans better than fritos? Absolutely! Are they the perfect “health” or “fat loss” food from nature? Nope, not that either. 🙂

  1. Heather McKee
    Heather McKee says:

    I joyously discovered your podcast last week and have been soaking up episodes- so much of what you share and how you share it resonates with me. Thank-you for what you do and for the great information, and for your obvious caring spirit.

    My question is this: Can you point me to some information re: good sources of whole food protein for vegetarians?

    Having relied on beans, lentils, etc. for the protein portion of my meals (i.e. throw some garbanzo beans on my salad and call it balanced) this is the biggest struggle that I have with the paleo lifestyle.

    THANKS 🙂

      • Heather McKee
        Heather McKee says:

        Thanks for the reply and for the info, I will definitely be sharing this with my parent (also vegetarian, born & raised). It is so true! I’ve always thought that beans were protein and didn’t learn until my 20s that they were really carbs with some protein. We do tend to eat a lot of grains, and more processed foods as vegetarians and it’s just a matter of awareness and making alternative choices. Thanks again 🙂


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