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updated 10/6/2006 8:21:11 AM ET 2006-10-06T12:21:11

Could eating more beans be your next step toward a healthful diet? Two new studies suggest that eating beans could lower your risk of developing a colon adenoma, a non-cancerous tumor that can progress into colon cancer. Previous studies link greater consumption of legumes (dried beans and peas) with lower risk of heart disease.

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New analysis of almost 35,000 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study shows that women who ate four or more servings of legumes a week were 33 percent less likely to develop colorectal adenomas than those consuming one serving a week or less. A new study from the National Cancer Institute shows that among people who had previously developed colon adenomas, those who increased consumption of dry beans the most were 45 percent less likely to face a recurrence of advanced adenoma than those who slightly decreased the amount of beans they ate. Four or more servings of legumes per week was enough to decrease risk of heart disease 22 percent compared to those eating legumes less than once a week in a large national survey.

How they help
These health benefits of legumes may come from this food’s unique phytochemicals. Saponins, lignans and phytosterols are under study for potential benefits in fighting cancer and heart disease. Legumes are also a major source of several nutrients most often lacking in Americans’ diets: magnesium, potassium, folate and fiber.

Recommendations for the amount of legumes we should eat vary, partly based on calorie needs. One dietary pattern recommended in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests five servings of legumes a week for sedentary adults and up to six servings a week for adults with higher calorie needs. A serving is considered a half-cup of cooked beans, dried peas or lentils. That translates into the average adult eating an average of only a third-cup or less per day.

But what about ...
Some people hesitate to eat beans because they can produce too much intestinal gas. Gas develops as indigestible carbohydrates in beans pass into the large intestine, where bacteria break down the carbohydrates and produce gas. A product called Beano taken with or just before eating provides a protein that breaks down these carbohydrates, preventing or reducing gas formation.

Cultures that traditionally use beans abundantly tend to use herbs and spices said to fight flatulence. These include turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, anise, fennel seeds, caraway seeds, rosemary, lemongrass, garlic and basil.

Little research “proves” their effectiveness, but you lose nothing by flavoring bean dishes with them to see if they work for you. Italian, Greek, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Asian cookbooks can provide inspiration, since all these cuisines use legumes frequently.

Even without special recipes, experiment by adding cooked beans to soups, salads, casseroles and rice or pasta. Or puree beans and use them to thicken soups or as a base for dips and spreads. When using canned beans make sure to rinse and drain them first to reduce the amount of salt.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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