In working with runners one of the biggest concerns I’ve bumped into over and over again (other than injuries!!) is anemia – or low iron levels. In spending a lot of time analyzing, researching and trying to get to the bottom of this widespread problem, I’ve added to my own diet a lot of foods that are good sources of iron… And kidney beans are on that list, with nearly one-quarter of your recommended daily intake (RDI) in a one cup cooked serving.
The thing is, iron isn’t the only positive attribute kidney beans have to offer. Today I want to share with you the multiple reasons I think you should include kidney beans in your diet, starting with iron, moving on to protein, right along over to fibre, and finishing with phytonutrients. Then I’ll even reveal to you how to ensure you can properly digest them… And even how to use them.
When I was young and chili was on the dinner menu, I’d be the last one sitting at the dining room table kicking and screaming, refusing to eat my kidney beans. I had an intense aversion for this little red bean. It wasn’t until I was an adult I came to not only appreciate but honestly enjoy the lowly kidney bean. And that was before I clued in to its myriad of benefits!
As I mentioned, kidney beans are a great source of iron – 4mg per one cup cooked serving (or 22% of your RDI). Iron is a trace mineral and we only have between 3-5 grams of it circulating in our body at one time. More than that, you risk hemochromatosis (not good); less than that, you’ve probably got iron deficiency anemia (also not good).
The keys to ensuring you have your ideal 3-5 grams of iron is to make sure you have a healthy gastrointestinal system and liver. This is done by ensuring you eat an overall healthful diet rich in legumes, beans, seeds, nuts, fruits, veggies and whole grains – all great sources of nonheme iron. You’ve likely heard that heme iron, found only in meat, is better absorbed than nonheme iron, found in plant sources. Which is somewhat true: heme iron is absorbed at a rate of 15-35% and nonheme at a rate of 2-20%. However, the more interesting fact is that iron is absorbed at rate the body requires. When we provide our bodies with nonheme iron, we can extract nearly as much iron from it (so long as our body currently requires iron and our gastrointestinal tract and liver are in good health).
It should also be noted that, along with iron, kidney beans are a good source of magnesium and potassium (hearth healthy and muscle relaxing electrolytes), zinc (potent antioxidant), and molybdenum (supports bone growth and strong teeth).
Yep, get your protein here! Kidney beans (and most beans) provide 15 grams of protein in a one cup cooked serving (which is how much you’d get in one serving of chili, recipe below). Now, as you’ve likely heard elsewhere, beans are not a ‘complete’ source of protein, meaning they do not contain all 9 essential amino acids. Beans are a little low in one – methionine. However, seeds nicely provide methionine – so ensuring you snack on some pumpkin seeds (in your trail mix) or pumpkin butter (spread on some celery or on an apple) or any other seeds in any manner at some point during the same day you eat kidney beans, means you’re good to go.
Beans are hands down one of the best sources of fibre out there (11 grams per one cup cooked serving, or about one third your RDI). So many of us don’t get enough fibre and runners sometimes end up avoiding fibre all to often for fear of the gastrointestinal disturbances it is known to cause when eaten before a run. And while you may want to avoid eating beans within 2 or so hours of running, you can certainly indulge upon completion of your run!
It is because of their high fibre content that beans are such great complex carbohydrates. They contain 40 grams of carbs per serving (another reason they make a great post-run food) but despite the high carb content, their fibre ranks them low on the glycemic index (a good thing) and makes them a food of choice for those struggling with diabetes or hypoglycemia (blood sugar imbalance – you’ve experienced low blood sugar when you bonked in a race and got all lightheaded, or even just hit a mid-afternoon low).
Beans have been found to significantly reduce cancer. One of their phytonutrients (or some call them phytochemicals) is called diosgenin, and this handy little nutrient appears to inhibit cancer cells from multiplying. Other phytonutrients include saponins, protease inhibitors, and phytic acid. They appear to protect cells from free radical damage that can ultimately lead to cancer.
Phytonutrients include many different types of antioxidants. And wouldn’t you know it, of all the foods tested by the USDA for antioxidant capacity, red kidney beans scored top four. Pretty powerful little bean if you ask me.
If there’s one thing beans are infamous for, it’s for their ability to cause gas. This is because they contain oligosaccharides, a complex sugar not easily digested. However, these intestinal problems can be reduced or even eliminated by soaking, cooking thoroughly, eating smaller amounts as your body adjusts (if you’re unaccustomed to eating beans), and cooking the beans with a carminative (gas-reducing) herb.
If you opt to cook your beans from scratch, you’ll want to soak them overnight (8-12 hours), then drain and rinse them. To cook, place the beans in a pot and ensure they are covered with water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1½ hours, then drain and rinse.
However, as much as I want to, I just can’t find the time to always cook my beans from scratch. So I use EDEN, a name brand I’ve come to know and trust completely. They pack their beans in BPA free cans, which is also very important to me, as most cans have an epoxy liner made with BPA (a controversial but generally accepted as toxic substance).
But why I really like EDEN is because their beans are washed, soaked overnight, and thoroughly cooked with a bit of kombu sea vegetable. The kombu contains natural glutamic acid which softens and enhances the flavor of beans. They’ve done all the work for me, all I have to do is make sure I rinse the beans when I dump them out of the can before I add them to my recipe! Speaking of which…
Now, how to use kidney beans, you might ask (cause I’m pretty sure you’re not going to crack open a can and munch away, mmmm, haha). No problem, I’ve got three excellent recipes to get you started. For dinner try good ol’ fashioned chili (click here for the recipe) or kale soup (click here for the recipe). And for dessert (yep, seriously) try kidney bean brownies (click here for the recipe). Not only are kidney beans a great source of iron, so is cocoa powder… Making this a perfect runners dessert – does it get better than this?!!
Kidney beans offer us a great source of iron, complex carbohydrates to refuel our glycogen stores and keep our blood sugar levels steady, a substantial amount of protein, and multiple protective phytonutrients. Eat up, run stronger.
Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS
Recipes that use Kidney Beans