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Beans and lentils help diabetics control blood sugar

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Beans, beans, good for your heart…and your blood sugar. A new study has found that a cup of beans or lentils each day could help those with Type 2 diabetes better control their blood sugar, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke.

High-fiber foods are recommended for diabetic patients because a portion is digested differently from other carbohydrates and are less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar. Also, fibrous foods help people stay full longer, thus promoting appropriate calorie intake and potentially weight loss. In addition, fiber promotes good bowel health and may lower the risk of cancer.

But is there a difference in the types of fiber a person can eat with regards to blood sugar control?

A research team led by Dr. David Jenkins of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada divided 121 people with diabetes into two groups. One group was instructed to increase their intake of cooked legumes by at least a cup a day, which contain both fiber and protein and have a low glycemic index (GI). The other group was told to consume more whole wheat products to increase their intake of dietary fiber without regard to the GI value of the foods.

After three months, the participants who consumed more beans and lentils had lower hemoglobin A1c levels. HbA1C is a measure of long-term glucose (blood sugar) control. The study volunteers also had a lowered 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease, due to a decrease in blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

"Legumes are good protein sources, and proteins tend to dampen the blood glucose response and they lower blood pressure," said Jenkins. "They are also good sources of fiber and that tends to be associated with lower cholesterol. "We hope that this could be the point that allows you to delay medication use."

In addition to protein and fiber, beans contain phytochemical compounds (antioxidants) that can help the body fight free radical damage that is linked to many health conditions such as aging, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

The vegetable class “legumes” contains beans, peas and lentils. Black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lima beans and kidney beans are examples. Legumes are available canned – which do not require soaking and have a shorter cooking period – or dried. One pound of dried beans yields about 5 or 6 cups of cooked beans while a 15-ounce can of beans equals about 1 ½ cups (drained).

Beans are excellent meat replacements in soups, stews, and chili. They can also be added to salads or rice to bump up the protein and fiber content of the side dish. Here are a few ideas on how to incorporate more legumes into your favorite meals:

• Add cooked black beans or kidney beans to an omelette.
• Toss cooked lentils into a leafy green salad.
• Add chickpeas to Greek salad for a boost of protein and fibre.
• Toss cooked lentils, chopped bell pepper and chopped red onion with a vinaigrette to make a tasty cold salad. Add fresh herbs such as parsley or cilantro.
• Enjoy minestrone, split pea, black bean or lentil soup instead of the usual chicken noodle.
• Spread sandwiches with hummus (chickpea purée) instead of mayonnaise.
• •Add chickpeas to whole-grain dishes such as quinoa, barley and brown rice pilafs.
• Use a variety of legumes when making chili. Try chickpeas, black beans and soy beans in addition to kidney beans.
• Add cooked black beans to tacos and burritos. Use half the amount of lean ground meat you normally would and make up the difference with beans.
• Add cooked lentils to quesadillas along with other fillings you enjoy.
• Add cooked white kidney beans to a tomato-based pasta sauce for a Mediterranean inspired meal.
• Toss cooked lentils into sautéed leafy greens such as spinach or Swiss chard for a healthy side dish.

Journal references:

Jenkins DJA, et al "Effect of legumes as part of a low glycemic index diet on glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes mellitus" Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.70.

Franz MJ "Beyond the glycemic index" Arch Intern Med 2012; DOI: 10.1001/2013.jamainternmed.871

Additional resources:
WebMD, “Beans: Protein-Rich Superfoods”
The Globe and Mail, “12 ways to add legumes to your diet”

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