Fight Metabolic Syndrome with 1 Key Food: Beans

metabolic syndrome

Very occasionally, Mother Nature blesses us with a very simple solution to an extremely troubling health problem.  So it is with beans and Metabolic Syndrome (MetS).

MetS – also known as Insulin Resistance Syndrome, Obesity Syndrome, or Syndrome X – is as scary as it sounds. It refers to a  group of five risk factors known to raise the likelihood of death from:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • diabetes
metabolic syndrome
Common MetS symptom.

A Syndrome X diagnosis requires at least three of the following:

  • Excess fat around the waistline
  • Excess fat in the blood (high triglycerides )
  • High blood pressure (above 130/85 mmHg)
  • High fasting blood sugar (insulin resistance)
  • Low good cholesterol (Low HDL)

Anyone American ticking the boxes on three or more of these risk factors has an increased danger of dying from our nation’s top killers.

Metabolic Syndrome and the Standard American Diet

But Metabolic Syndrome’s importance in diagnosing the risk of lethal illness isn’t limited to Americans. The Standard American Diet’s (SAD) global spread is quickly making MetS a leading indicator of serious disease throughout the world.

metabolic syndrome
Fried pork bacon, SAD staple.

By replacing healthy foods such as leafy greens, chickpeas, and lentils with salty, sugary, and oily alternatives, SAD has taken a dramatic toll on our health.

The American Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 cups of legumes a week (just under 1/2 a cup per day). However, this 2010 National Cancer Institute survey found that only 3.9% of Americans met the minimum.

Seven years later, a second survey showed little change:

  • Fewer than 1 in 20 Americans reported daily legume consumption.
  • One-third of the respondents hadn’t eaten legumes for a month.

Oregon State University researchers’ conclusion? “Our data suggest that legume consumption declined in US adults.”

The SAD truth? The vast majority of us don’t eat enough beans. What health consequences do we face – and what do legumes have to do with metabolic syndrome?

The Beans vs. Rice vs. Metabolic Syndrome Debate

While reviewing legume-related research this past week, I found multiple studies connecting beans with both metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

In many cultures, “rice and beans” is a staple meal. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition wanted to understand if either ingredient had a more positive effect on MetS.

metabolic syndrome
White rice and beans.

They gathered data from nearly 1900 Costa Ricans, including how many times they ate white rice and beans each day and their rice-to-beans ratio. The results were stunning:

“Substituting one serving of beans for one serving of white rice was associated with a 35% … lower risk of the metabolic syndrome.”

Did I read that right? Exchanging just one serving of white rice for an extra serving of beans reduced their risk of developing the Syndrome X risk factors by 35 percent. This is an incredible result for such a simple dietary change.

Iranian researchers compared the dietary data of 80 MetS sufferers and 160 healthy, gender-matched participants.

Those eating the most legumes (“the highest quartile”) had significantly “lower odds of having MetS compared with those in the lowest quartile.”

How significant? In Dr. Michael Greger’s review of the study, he found,

“Those that ate three or more servings of beans a week only had about a quarter of the odds of the disease, compared to those who had one serving or less.”

The greater their legume intake, the greater their decreases in mean systolic blood pressure and fasting blood glucose and increase in HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

 MetS Meets Its Match – in Beans!

Just yesterday, I posted about a randomized controlled trial involving 121 participants with type 2 diabetes. Conducted at Toronto’s St. Michael Hospital, it sought to verify that patients with type 2 diabetes benefited from consuming low-glycemic-index(low-GI) foods.

One hundred twenty-one participants in two groups followed one of two diets for three months. The first group added 1 cup of legumes (cooked beans, lentils, or chickpeas) to their low-GI diet.

Low glycemic diet with beans.

The second added foods high in wheat fiber (whole-wheat cereals and bread.) Which group showed improved metabolic risk factors, according to the researchers?

“Incorporation of legumes as part of a low-GI [glycemic index] diet improved both glycemic control and reduced calculated CHD [coronary heart disease] risk score in type 2 [diabetes].”

Everyone would benefit from a lower MetS risk, yet only a small fraction of us eat the daily recommended dose of beans. Even those already consuming rice and beans regularly might need to check their rice-to-beans ratio.

I’ve always been a “two scoops rice, one scoop beans” man. But from now on, I’ll be flipping my ratio to “one scoop rice, two scoops beans.”

Such a small change to make, for such potentially enormous health benefits!

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