In the 19th century, many African-Americans brought in the New Year with Hoppin’ John — a dish made with black-eyed peas and collard greens, among other ingredients, and thought to bring prosperity and luck. Those folks were onto something, according to the authors of “Becoming Vegan: Express Edition,” an award-winning guide to plant-based diets. By eating beans and greens regularly, they say, people can improve their fortune — or at least their health — year-round.
Beans and greens are the meat and potatoes of our modern era, say dietitians Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis, whose book “Becoming Vegan” won the 2014 Canada Book Awards. Beans — more specifically legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils, but “beans” will be used here as a catch-all term — along with dark leafy green vegetables provide the backbone for creating really healthy meals, they say.
Beans, greens: good for your heart, bones, blood sugar and more
“Beans are a fabulous source of protein,” Melina says. “And we all know that beans are good for the heart.”
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Their viscous fiber — the kind that forms a gel when combined with water — binds cholesterol and then helps move it through your stool and out the body. She says that collards are full of viscous fiber and really good at binding cholesterol, too.
All that gel-like fiber in Hoppin’ John also helps regulate your blood sugar. Once you’ve swallowed a bite, the stomach churns it up like a blender and then sends the liquids into your small intestine, where proteins, fats and carbohydrates get broken down for your body to use. Tiny blood vessels in the intestine’s lining allow nutrients — including glucose — to pass into the blood. The gummy fiber, however, slows down the release of sugars into your bloodstream.
Beans and greens, says Melina, are also both great sources of folate — a B vitamin that helps keep your DNA working properly.
And new research on beans shows that they appear to be good for the bones, too, Davis adds. Beans are rich sources of nutrients that promote healthy bones: protein and folate, magnesium and calcium. But another compound in beans — phytic acid — binds to many minerals, and until recently, authorities believed that would negatively impact bone health. Recent research, however, suggests that phytic acid may actually protect against bone loss.
Beans, beans: The more you eat, the more you …
The reason beans cause flatulence and greens don’t is yet another compelling incentive for embracing the powerful seeds. “That’s your gut at work fermenting carbohydrates in the beans’ fiber into compounds that fight disease,” Davis says.
Once fiber has passed through your small intestine, it reaches the large intestine and then either passes out the body through stool or gets eaten — or fermented — by healthy bacteria that live in your gut. The fermentable carbohydrates in beans go even further, Davis says. “They serve as prebiotics, stimulating the growth of those friendly bacteria in the colon.”
Fermentation transforms carbohydrates in the fiber into compounds that help regulate appetite and blood sugar, control inflammation and fight cancer. They also aid your immune system by nourishing your intestinal lining, the barrier that keeps pathogens from traveling between your gut and blood. (Greens from the cruciferous family — collards, kale, mustard greens, for example — help build and repair that lining, too.)
What happens in your gut, scientists are learning, is crucial for your health, says Davis, and in most people, flatulence is easily controlled. When it comes to eating beans, soak and cook them well and make sure your gut has lots of healthy microbes to digest them, she suggests.
Tips for fending off flatulence
In their book, “Becoming Vegan,” Davis and Melina offer several tips for handling beans, including these guidelines:
— Soak them for at least 6 to 8 hours or overnight in lots of water: 3 cups for every cup of beans. Then put them in a colander and rinse well.
— Place soaked beans and fresh water into a heavy pot, again using 3 cups of water per cup of beans.
— Add a 2-inch to 6-inch strip of kombu, a sea vegetable containing enzymes that help break down the gas-producing carbohydrates.
— Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until beans are very well cooked, usually 1 to 1 1/2 hours, less for very small beans, more for very large ones.
— Skim off and discard any white foam. That, too, contains gassy starches.
— Add spices. Many common seasonings help counteract the production of gas: garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and black pepper, for example.
— Go slowly: Your colon needs time to build up its reserves of good bacteria that digest those fermentable carbs. If you’re just beginning to embrace beans in your diet this new year, start with small portions.
By eating beans regularly, you’ll soon be hoppin’ with healthy microbes.
Main photo: Beans and greens. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller