Beans are typically viewed as a healthy food, which is why people are often surprised to hear that we do not eat them on the Paleo diet.
I often get bewildered looks from people wondering what is wrong with beans – after all, many health-conscious dieters (e.g. vegetarians) use beans in many of their dishes, sometimes in high quantities, because beans contain fiber and other necessary nutrients. So why aren’t they Paleo?
The truth is, beans and other legumes aren’t great for you, and if you eat them often, they might even be bad for you, but they are the least of your worries. While I avoid them myself, I wouldn’t say this is the most important Paleo rule to follow, and a little bit of beans once in a while should be totally okay!
But it is important to understand why the Paleo guidelines recommend excluding beans from your diet. There are lots of myths out there about the reasons, and I hope I can clear some of those up.
Explanation #1: Our Ancestors Did Not Eat Legumes (FALSE!)
Many people assume that if something is not Paleo, it’s because our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t eat it. While it’s true for things like dairy and wheat, it is not the case for legumes. In fact, an analysis of Neanderthal tooth plaque reveals that they at least ate peas and some varieties of beans – so chances are, our Paleo ancestors had beans as part of their regular diet.
But it’s important to remember that the Paleo diet is based more on the food’s impact on our bodies than it does on historical accuracy (the historical part is there as a guideline).
[bctt tweet=”There are several reasons why beans are not #Paleo, but our ancestors’ lack of access to legumes is not one of them.” via=”no”]
Explanation #2: The Phytic Acid in Legumes Prevents Nutrient Absorption (TRUE!)
One of the real reasons legumes are not recommended on the Paleo diet is because they contain phytic acid (phytate), which is considered an “antinutrient” because it prevents your body from absorbing vitamins and minerals from the food you’re eating. So beans basically defeat their own purpose when you eat them.
Many different plants contain phytic acid – it is their primary form of storage for phosphorus. It is usually contained within the seed or bran of the plant (which is, by the way, one of the reasons wheat is not Paleo either). Legumes typically contain a lot of it.
When you eat foods containing phytic acid, it binds to important minerals, such as calcium, iron, and zinc and washes them out before you can absorb them. This can eventually lead to malnutrition, especially since most people assume that eating beans should do the opposite and fill you with nutrients, and end up getting less from other sources.
Explanation #3: Beans Contain Lectins, Which Lead to a Leaky Gut (TRUE)
Legumes, much like dairy and grains, contain a high lectin content. Lectins are a proteins found in legumes, grains, dairy, and some vegetables. Human bodies are not great at digesting lectins.
Different people react differently to different types of lectins. Some develop an immune response to them, some experience some mild intolerance, while others have no issues.
But even if you feel fine after eating something with a high lectin content, that doesn’t mean they’re not damaging to your digestive tract.
As lectins pass through the intestines, they damage the gut lining, eventually leading to it becoming “leaky”. Leaky gut is a dangerous condition that allows foreign particles to leak out of your intestines and into your bloodstream – where they most certainly don’t belong.
These foreign particles trigger an immune response which leads to chronic autoimmune disorders. Some of these foreign particles might even be toxic to you (depending on your diet) and you really don’t want them running through your veins.
However, it is important to note that it is the raw legumes that are known for their high lectin content. You can reduce the amount of lectins in beans by cooking them properly – for example, soaking, sprouting, fermenting and slow cooking can often make legumes much safer to eat. To be fair, most people don’t have the time to do that and find that it’s not really worth the hassle.
Legumes Are Neither Good Nor Bad
Both phytic acid and lectins are legitimate concerns when it comes to legumes, but these compounds are also found in other foods (like vegetables) that are perfectly Paleo approved. The reason is because a) vegetables contain smaller amounts and b) vegetables are extremely nutritious and provide far more benefits than harm.
I believe that legumes can be eaten once in a while, but it’s best to avoid them when possible. They are inferior to meats in their protein content, and inferior to vegetables in fiber/nutrient content. Once you account for the antinutrients they contain, legumes become just another filler – a food that has calories, but no nutritional value.
So while our ancestors may have had beans, today we know about their effects on our health, and have the power to make better choices.
photo in feature by cookbookman17 under the creative commons license