For years beans have suffered the reputation as the poor man's meat. You ate beans if you couldn't afford to eat more expensive food or to stretch the meat you had. America needs to get over it and eat more beans, for crying out loud.
Beans are actually a vegetable, but they're high enough in protein that the government also considers them a meat substitute. Since they fit into two food groups, they're often lost in the shuffle. Given what beans have to offer us, they're probably the most neglected food in our diets, and they deserve better.
OK, let's just get it out in the open right now. You can't talk about beans without hearing jokes about flatulence and the ever popular campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles." The truth is, when you eat beans only occasionally (like for the Labor Day picnic and then once for the Super Bowl party) you eat a lot of them at once. Your body overdoses, and the results turn you off to beans for a while.
If you include them gradually and regularly, your body will adjust fine. And remember, half a cup does the trick, but you can start even smaller by just garnishing a salad with a spoonful and build from there. And one-half cup has about 6 to 8 grams of fiber, nearly a third of what you need for a whole day. Beans even help diabetics control their blood sugar and they're even fat-free.
If you don't know your cholesterol level, find out. It's good to get a baseline level, so you know if things change over time. Whether your numbers are good or if they need some improvement, consider some simple dietary changes.
Here are some tips to get you started lowering your cholesterol without going near a pharmacy:
Take the pinto out for a spin. I'd like to see beans, including pintos, become a standard ingredient in salads and soups. They work in pasta sauce, too.
Beans are vegetables, so it's OK to substitute them for other veggies. If anyone balks at eating too many leafy greens, they'll probably go for beans, and it's mission accomplished.
Use canned beans to save time. If you're watching your salt intake, just rinse them well -- you'll lose 40 percent of the sodium.
Trade your chips and pretzels for almonds. Just an ounce or a small handful (about 23 almonds if you want to get technical), can lower cholesterol another 5 percent.
Try foods with added plant sterols. If margarine-type spreads aren't your thing, there are great small-shot drinks available instead. A typical portion is only 3 ounces -- good for those on-the-go, and one drink a day can lower you cholesterol another 7 percent.
Eat some soy -- burgers, tofu, edamame -- you choose, but do it. Try it at least once or twice a week.
Do each of these, and your cholesterol will come down about 20 percent, maybe more if it's really elevated. But whatever you do is better than nothing, so do something.
Finally, you don't need to stop eating eggs. Yes they have cholesterol, but the cholesterol in your diet isn't much of an issue. Saturated fat is what really can raise your serum cholesterol, and eggs are low in saturated fat.
Read that last sentence again and please commit it to memory. There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get the egg question. Thank you in advance.
Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.