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Dr. Zorba Paster: New research touts beans’ health benefits

Beans, beans, beans – even talking about them makes you smile. And, of course, you know why. Every adolescent seems to have a bean joke or story somewhere in their repertoire.

But put those jokes into your back pocket, because beans are making a comeback. New research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows these unsexy vegetables might help control diabetes and reduce the risk for heart attacks and stroke.

Researchers took 120 patients who had Type 2 diabetes, the kind that is usually controlled with diet, exercise and medication.

For three months, half of them ate a cup a day of beans – garbanzos, lentils or other legumes – while the others were encouraged to follow their regular, nearly bean-free diet. All other factors such as exercise and other food choices were unchanged.

After those three months, the bean eaters lowered their blood sugar and improved their cholesterol. As an extra benefit, their blood pressure also improved.

That’s certainly a wow. But does that mean you should substitute beans for medications? Not so fast; every study has pros and cons.

Let’s look at the cons first. The study was small, slightly more than 100 patients. To be a game-changer, a study would have to examine at least 1,000 people – and follow them for longer than three months.

Also, the improvement in participants’ blood tests was modest, not enough to have people stop their meds but enough to give them improved control.

Now the pros. Eating beans is another way to improve your diet. If you’re like me, you’ve made changes such as cutting down on red meat, accenting chicken and fish, accenting whole grains and eating more vegetables. Eating more beans is something else you can do to improve things in a natural way. And a modest change in blood-test numbers just might keep you from needing an additional pill for good control.

But there may be another reason to start eating beans: the diabetes epidemic. We don’t know why it’s happening, but we do have some clues.

One factor is that we’re consuming too many soft drinks, refined sugary foods, pastries and plain old white bread. When we eat these foods, our blood sugar shoots up and our body produces insulin to help move that sugar out of the bloodstream and into the body.

Over time, we need to produce more and more insulin to get the same result. When this fails, we become a diabetic. We know that eating fewer refined carbohydrates is better for us and improves blood-sugar control. Beans are carbs that are good for us.

As for that “gas” problem, whether you start by soaking dried beans or use them from a can, wash them in a colander before you cook them. The juice they sit in is a “gas former.”

The exception are baked beans. If you soak them, well, you’ll miss all that flavor.

So there’s always Beano. Taking this digestive enzyme before you consume beans can do wonders.

My spin: We don’t talk enough about beans. They’re not a poor cousin but a shining star of good health.

I can just see the time when you’ll be able to walk into any McDonalds and order a McBean sandwich. Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.