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If you think beans are just humdrum filler in chili or stew, you're ignoring a powerful diet ingredient in your cooking.

Beans can boost your weight loss efforts in several ways, according to Amy Barr, a registered dietitian.

"Beans are low in fat and cholesterol-free," says Barr, of Marr Barr, a nutrition communications agency in the Denver, Colo., area.

Beans may be one of the most misunderstood ingredients in a dieter's arsenal. The legume -- actually a fruit -- is starchy, which you may equate with fattening. But just the opposite is true.

Legumes contain higher amounts of resistant starch, which isn't easily digested by the body. Since the body slowly digests resistant starch, you don't get the blood sugar spike that causes you to be hungry an hour or so after eating, Barr says.

Resistant starches may have a potent cancer-fighting benefit as well. When the starch finally settles in the colon, it's attacked by bacteria and as a result produces a short-chain fatty acid known for its cancer-preventive qualities, according to research from the University of Illinois.

Also, "beans are high in dietary fiber, which fills you up faster," Barr says.

Unlike other starchy foods, such as refined white flour, beans are also a good source of protein.

Black beans contain the highest levels of resistant starch and dietary fiber, according to U of Illinois research.

But that doesn't mean you should restrict yourself to one bean variety, says Barr. Eating a variety of beans makes meals more interesting and assures that you'll get the mix of beneficial plant chemicals from different beans.

At one time, health experts thought it necessary to combine plant proteins in one recipe -- beans and rice, for example -- to achieve full protein benefits. That's no longer seen as essential. As long as you get protein from a variety of sources during the day, you'll be fine, says Barr.

In the new dietary guidelines issued by the government, beans are listed in two separate categories: as a meat equivalent or as a vegetable. If you're eating beans as a side dish, a half-cup serving is sufficient. If you're replacing meat with beans, a quarter-cup serving of cooked beans equals one ounce of meat in protein value.

Instead of a 3-ounce hamburger made from lean ground beef, you can have three-quarters of a cup of kidney beans, for example. The burger has 228 calories and more than 15 grams of fat. The beans have 168 calories and less than one gram of fat.

But you don't have to trade beans for beef as part of your weight-loss regimen.

"If you're making any meat-based dish, cut the meat by half and substitute with beans. You'll get dietary fiber for satiety, less cholesterol and less fat," says Barr.

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