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Take It In: Greens and beans – good luck, maybe; good health, definitely

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Dried beans and greens are two foods with an age-old reputation for bringing good luck and prosperity in the new year. This status comes from beans’ resemblance in shape to coins and to greens’ color akin to paper bills.

These hidden gems aren’t the trendiest of foods. After all, beans are one of the longest-cultivated plants in human history, dating back some 10,000-plus years. Greens, too, have been foraged and then grown in the Mediterranean and Asia since at least 2,000 B.C.

Today, research shows both beans and greens are two incredibly nutrient-dense foods. Plus, these affordable staples are versatile and as such make healthful additions to meals in the year ahead.

Unlike their highly perishable, green-colored counterparts, dried beans are those that are dehydrated and packaged into bags that can last weeks unrefrigerated. Examples are pinto, kidney, black, navy, white and lima beans. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, but lack the fat and cholesterol of protein-based animal foods. What’s more, they are one of the few plant foods that contain the essential amino acid lysine. This makes dried beans a higher quality protein source than other plant foods.

Dried beans are also rich sources of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, as well as micronutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folate, iron and zinc. According to a study published in 2013 in the journal Primary Care, eating a half cup of dried, cooked beans – pinto beans, in this case – daily for 8 weeks significantly decreased total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus lowering the risk of heart disease.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks for many people when it comes to eating more beans is the time it takes to cook them and the flatulence that can result after eating them. To the first point, either cook dried beans in a large batch and freeze in smaller portions for future recipes, or purchase canned beans and rinse to reduce excessive sodium. To the second point, soak beans in water for 8 to 12 hours – or overnight – before cooking. Add a pinch of baking soda to the soaking water to reduce the risk of intestinal gas, as well as speed up the cooking time. Do drain off the soaking water and rinse the baking soda off the soaked beans prior to cooking.

Watercress, Chinese cabbage, chard, beet greens, spinach, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens and kale are among the nutrient-dense “powerhouse fruits and vegetables,” according to research published in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. These foods are low in calories and sodium, fat- and cholesterol-free, and abundant in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and plant-based nutrients, such as the carotenoids’ lutein and zeaxanthin.

A sizable body of research accumulated by the Arlington, Virginia-headquartered American Institute for Cancer Research points to the carotenoids in dark green leafy vegetables as substances responsible for slowing or stopping breast, skin, lung and stomach cancer cells.

Eating greens raw or minimally cooked does help to preserve nutrients. Yet, cooking greens offers advantages, too. For example, research has shown that greens shrink when cooked, so eating cooked greens means you potentially eat more of them. Also, greens such as spinach have oxalic acid that can prevent the absorption of iron and calcium. Steaming can reduce this acid content.

Try kidney beans and spinach in a salad, white beans and kale in a soup, or collards and pinto beans as a side dish. These are nutritious and delicious ways to enjoy beans and greens in the new year.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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