The One Protein Cardiologists Want You to Eat More Often

Beans are a plant protein that's rich in certain heart-healthy nutrients and low in saturated fat.
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We may associate milk with strong bones, chicken breast with strong muscles and vegetables with a strong digestive system. But what foods are good for heart health?

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Heart health is vital for overall health. A heart-healthy lifestyle, including your diet, can help lower the risks for serious and sometimes fatal cardiovascular diseases.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for most adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates that nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure (aka hypertension) and nearly 12 percent have high cholesterol levels. Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol are risk factors for heart disease.

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When it comes to heart-healthy foods, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends choosing picks that are low in saturated fat and sodium but high in fiber. With this criteria, there's one type of food that should come to mind: beans. Here's why cardiologists agree on adding beans to your weekly shopping list.

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Why Beans Are So Heart-Healthy

1. They're Linked to a Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

While protein is heavily associated with animal products, beans are also packed with protein and they come from plant sources.

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Animal proteins have a leg up on plant-based ones as they are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. But, meat protein is associated with a risk for heart disease, according to a December 2011 review in Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

With beans, it's the opposite. Compared to animal proteins like beef, beans may be the healthier choice for your ticker because they can lower the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

"Beans are not only a healthy food choice for our hearts but also for the rest of our body and our planet," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and the Medical Director of Atria New York City. "Beans are a low-fat protein source and that's why beans and legumes are recommended for a healthy heart. A diet that includes beans is particularly important in lowering the risk for coronary artery disease."

2. They Help With Weight Management

"Eating a heart-healthy diet that includes beans can help with blood pressure control, cholesterol management and weight control, all of which are preventative for coronary artery disease," says Ashley Simmons, MD, head of the women's cardiology center at The University of Kansas Medical Center.

There is a link between obesity and heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. An estimated one in three Americans has obesity, which is linked to several factors that increase the risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and metabolic disease.

Weight reduction is associated with heart benefits like decreased blood pressure and improved lipid profiles, according to a December 2018 review in Medicine. Weight management may be an effective way to reduce the risk of heart disease, and a diet rich in beans can help.

Including beans in your diet may aid in weight loss even when your diet is not intended to restrict calories, according to a May 2016 review in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

3. They're Tied to a Reduced Risk of Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic health condition, and it increases the risk of heart disease. High blood glucose levels from diabetes can damage your blood vessels and nerves around your heart, which can lead to heart disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Eating beans not only reduces the risk of heart disease but also diabetes, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. When combined with a low-glycemic diet, a cup of beans per day can help lower blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes, per Harvard Health Publishing.

"Beans and other legumes benefit cardiovascular health because they are high in fiber, plant protein and other micronutrients, such as B vitamins, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and zinc. They are also low in fat, contain almost no cholesterol and are low on the glycemic index. Beans can help reduce diabetes and overall cardiovascular disease health and risk factors," says Nitin Bhatnagar, MD, a cardiologist in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

4. They're Linked to a Reduced Risk of Hypertension

High blood pressure is also called hypertension, and it's a risk factor for heart disease. A diet rich in beans can help maintain healthy blood pressure levels, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

"Beans are special because they are nutrient-dense foods. They provide significant protein, fiber, iron and antioxidants and are low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, unlike food from animal sources," says Sandy Charles, MD, a board-certified cardiologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Plant-based diets help reduce the risk of heart disease by minimizing our consumption of fat, cholesterol and sodium. Eating beans reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and hypertension, according to a November 2019 review in Advances in Nutrition."

5. Beans Are Free of Saturated Fat

"Beans are high in minerals and fiber without the saturated fat found in some animal proteins," says Ragavendra Baliga, MBBS, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Foods high in saturated fat play a role in heart health. These solid fats can increase cholesterol levels, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease, per the American Heart Association. Since saturated fat is found in animal-based foods, replacing some of your meat intake with beans or other legumes can be a heart-healthy swap.

"Eating beans may help improve blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels, two leading causes of heart disease and heart attacks," Baliga says. "Adding beans to the diet may help one feel full longer. Eating beans is recommended over simple carbohydrates that are high on the glycemic index for better heart health."

So, How Much Beans Should You Eat?

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating between 5 and 7 servings of protein, including legumes like beans, per day for adults. Opt for low-sodium canned beans or make your own from scratch.

There are many kinds of beans — including kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, mung, navy and more — for a wide variety. The AHA recommends incorporating beans into your diet by adding them to toast, soups, salads, pasta dishes or homemade dips.

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