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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Man to Man Man to Man

Meat or Beans -- Which Has the Biggest Nutritional Payoff?

February 20, 2013

By Harvey B. Simon M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Ask a red-blooded, all-American guy what he wants for dinner and he's likely to choose a steak or roast. His second choice might be a burger or chop. Keep asking, and you may eventually come up with chicken or fish. But no matter how much you push it, our average gent is not likely to request beans.

It doesn't have to be that way. Beans were a staple of the Native American diet and they remain so in many parts of Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

Because beans are inexpensive, they're thought of as a poor man's food. That may be part of the reason they're neglected in the United States.

In our affluent society, important people debate "meaty" issues and wealthy folks live "high off the hog." In contrast, ignorant people "don't know beans" and worthless things "don't amount to a hill of beans."

It's true that red meat is a good source of iron and protein. And it's true that beans can trigger intestinal gas. But when it comes to health, red meat is oversold and beans are undervalued.

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Comparing the Numbers

Steak is the traditional high-protein food. Beans are a neglected source of high-quality protein, not to mention other nutrients.

5-ounce steak

  • Calories: 300
  • Protein: 44 grams
  • Fat: 12 grams
  • Cholesterol: 120 milligrams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Complex carbohydrates: 0 grams

1 cup of pinto beans

  • Calories: 265
  • Protein: 15 grams
  • Fat: 1 grams
  • Cholesterol: 0 milligrams
  • Fiber: 15 grams
  • Complex carbohydrates: 29 grams

The beans have more potassium and less sodium than the steak. Both have the same amount of iron, but your body is more efficient at absorbing iron from animal sources. Add the enormous difference in price and you'll see that beans are a much better nutritional bargain than steak.

The numbers are interesting, but what do they mean when it comes to your health?

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The Health Risks of Meat

Over the years, many high-quality studies have linked high-meat diets with a high risk of heart disease, colon cancer and prostate cancer. But the most important question is how meat consumption affects life expectancy — and a major study may give you pause about meat.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP Diet and Health Study evaluated 545,663 people ages 50 to 71; almost 60% were men. For 10 years, researchers collected information about each volunteer's meat intake, overall diet, medical history and health risk factors.

The scientists evaluated three categories of meat:

  • Red meat – all cuts of beef and pork
  • White meat – poultry and fish
  • Processed meat – bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, cold cuts, ham and hot dogs

Here's what they found:

  • The men who ate the most red meat had a 31% higher death rate than the men who ate the least.
  • Eating lots of processed meat was associated with a 16% higher death rate.
  • Men and women who ate more red and processed meat were more likely to die from cancer and heart disease than people who ate the least.
  • In both sexes, a high intake of "white meat" (which included fish for the purposes of this study) was linked to a reduced death rate.

The NIH-AARP results held up even after scientists took other health habits and risk factors into account. And the link between red and processed meat and mortality is even more worrisome because relatively small portions were involved. On average, the high-risk volunteers consumed an average of about 4 ounces of red meat, and 1 1/2 ounces of processed meat a day.

All in all, the scientists estimated that 11% of premature deaths in men would be prevented by reducing red meat intake.

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Can I Still Eat Meat?

You don't have to avoid all red meat, just choose carefully, prepare it properly and eat it sparingly.

  • Avoid fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb.
  • Stay away from spare ribs, organ meats (liver, kidney) and processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon).
  • Break the "prime" and "choice" beef habit; instead of paying more for those high-fat cuts, buy "select" and "lean" cuts.
  • Trim all visible fat before cooking.
  • Don't fry or braise meat; instead, roast, grill, broil or bake it on a rack so that fat can drip away.
  • Skim the fat from stews with meat before serving.
  • Cook your meat to 165º F to prevent food-borne infections, but don't let it get charred.

How much meat should you eat? The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests a general goal of no more than about 11 ounces a week, including very little or no processed meat. Think of meat as a side dish. Rather than meat, use grains, legumes and vegetables as your main dish. Reduce the amount of meat you use in casseroles and stews, or eliminate it entirely. Use ground turkey instead. And for a different kind of meat substitute, consider beans.

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The Health Benefits of Beans

When most Americans think of beans, they think first of garden-type fresh beans such as green beans, string beans, wax beans and green peas. But nutritionists think first of legumes: lentils, chickpeas, soybeans and dry beans and peas such as black, lima, fava, pinto, kidney and navy beans.

You don't have to eat a hill of beans to get a mountain of benefits. But men who eat beans regularly appear to have a reduced risk of prostate cancer, pre-cancerous colon polyps, and (in overweight individuals) pancreatic cancer. In these areas, legumes are the anti-red meat — and the same is true for metabolic abnormalities and heart disease.

The National Health and Examination Survey found that people who eat beans have lower body weights, waist circumferences and blood pressures than people who don't eat beans. Legumes are high in fiber. So they can also help prevent diabetes and improve cholesterol levels.

All this should add up to better heart health. And it does: A 19-year study of 9,632 Americans found that people who eat legumes 4 or more times a week have a 22% lower risk of coronary artery disease than those who eat legumes less than once a week.

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Beating the Bloat

Legumes are nutritious and cheap. They can add flavor, color and texture to any menu. But there is a hitch: They can trigger bloating and gas.

Legumes have lots of dietary fiber, which are special types of complex carbohydrates. These make beans filling. Some of these carbohydrates help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels; others make stools softer, bulkier, and easier to pass.

But we lack the enzymes to digest dietary fiber. So bacteria in our intestines do it. In the process, they produce gas. To minimize the problem, introduce legumes into your diet slowly. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Before you cook dried beans, wash them and soak them overnight or at least for two hours; then rinse them and change the water before you boil them.

If gas is still a problem, try an over-the-counter enzyme that will start breaking down the carbohydrates before the bacteria in your colon can get to them. Alpha-galactosidase (Beano, generic) comes in tablets or drops. Use them before you eat legumes. They may help with other "gassy" foods, such as broccoli and cauliflower.

Most men spend much more time eating than cooking. So it pays to know the 20 guidelines for healthful and enjoyable eating.

Sinha R. et al. "Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people." Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009; 169:562-71.

Kolonel, L. et al. "Vegetables, fruits, legumes and prostate cancer: A multicentre case-control study." Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. 2000; 9:795-804.

Lanza et al. "High dry bean intake and reduced risk of advanced colorectal adenoma recurrence among participants in the polyp prevention trial." Journal of Nutrition. 2006; 136:1896.

Bazzano, L.A. et al. "Fruit and vegetable intake and risk ofcardiovascular disease in US adults: The first National Epidemiologic Follow-up Study." Archives of Internal Medicine. 2001; 161: 2573.

David J. A. Jenkins 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." Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012; 172(21):1653-1660.

Papanikolaou Y, Fulgoni VL, 3rd. "Bean consumption is associated with greater nutrient intake, reduced systolic blood pressure, lower body weight, and a smaller waist circumference in adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2002." Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2008; 27:569-576.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

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