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I'm a level I "sports performance certified" USAW coach, and I train, and work as a trainer at Asheville Strength and Conditioning, a great little gym here in Asheville, N.C.

I work with clients who want to get strong and fit, and am especially happy with helping older or detrained individuals.

My own training now is more focused on developing strength and using basic lifts and classic strength and conditioning techniques. A lot of the older portions of this blog deal with CrossFit and reflect my journey into fitness self-awareness. I first discovered CrossFit, back in late 2008. I learned a lot from CrossFit's "fitness as sport" model of training -- and benefited tremendously from training with my friends at CrossFit Asheville -- and furthermore I must credit my interest in CrossFit for opening my eyes to the larger world of training for strength athletics, Olympic-style weightlifting, powerlifting, and other arcane approaches to moving the Iron around.

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Is It Paleo? • September 15, 2009, at 4:27 pm

Yeah, but is it Paleo? Black Beans

Black Beans with Breakfast

Yesterday morning I went a bit off of my Paleo-Zone dietary program. I was on my way to work, short on time, so I stopped by my local health-food store, GreenLife, to get some food off the breakfast bar for my post-WOD breakfast. My original intent was just to get some quick scrambled eggs, and then maybe add a banana for some quick carbs. But there, beside the eggs, was a bin of some nice looking black beans. And right at that moment, I decided to deviate. I do this sometimes. That’s why I call my diet a “flexible-paleo-Zone” diet. I put some beans in the box with my eggs.

So, with about two scrambled eggs, I had about 1/2 cup of black beans. Two eggs plus 1/2 cup of Black Beans = 20.2 grams of protein (<~3 blocks), 10.4 grams of fat (>~3 blocks), and 20.4 grams of carbohydrates (>~2 blocks). Later I had about a cup of mixed melon and fruit to make up the missing block of carbs, and I did my usual addition of plenty of fat, in the form of almond butter. I felt good. I felt healthy. I went about my business.

This all sounds pretty good. What was wrong with this breakfast? Aren’t black beans Paleo?

No, Black Beans Aren’t Paleo

Black beans are a legume and for some reason, all legumes are absolutely discouraged by the Paleo-diet gurus. It turns out this is based on the theory that Legumes were (1) introduced into the human diet only after the agricultural revolution, (2) contain something called a “Lectin” which is supposedly bad for you, and (3) can’t be eaten raw, which is one of the key indicators of whether a food is “Paleo” or not.

So they aren’t “paleo.” But was I really “cheating” by eating those beans? Was I ruining my diet, my health, my athletic performance, indeed, my life?

The Nutritional Profile of Black Beans

Probably not. This breakfast felt pretty awesome. Black beans are easy to eat. They aren’t sweet, they are filling, they feel healthy. And there are dozens of scientifically valid reasons why an athlete might want to eat them.

First, Black Beans are high in Potassium, containing about 305 mg of Potassium per 1/2 cup (86 grams). Compare this to a banana, which has 422 mg and about 27 grams of carbs (3 blocks) in a medium sized fruit (118 grams). This means that, gram per gram, black beans and bananas have an almost identical profile in terms of their carb and potassium content (~.27–.28 mg of Potassium each; .22–.23 g of CHO each).

Second, Black Beans are pretty low on the glycemic index, with a rating of 30 to 43 depending on the source you consult. Those of us who follow a “Zone-favorable diet” (or who are worried regulating insulin) know that carbohydrate sources which fall lower on the glycemic index are to be preferred to those of higher numbers. Table sugar, which is mostly sucrose, has a glycemic index of 65; pure sucrose is 100. Sucrose has to be broken down into the its two constituent parts, glucose and fructose, and its fructose has to be converted to glucose before it can be used. Thus sucrose has a lower glycemic rating than, say, pure glucose, which is rated at 130, or medicinal glucose tablets, rated at 146. In comparison, treats made with refined wheat flour often have a glycemic index upwards of 115. Pineapple has a 94 rating. And a banana has a rating of 77. So the Beans are better than a banana (and a lot of other choices), if the goal is regulation of insulin. Which, on the Zone, it is.

Third, the reason why black beans are so low on the glycemic index is that their macronutrient profile includes a nice mixture of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and protein. With 7.5 grams of fiber per half cup (86 gram) serving, they are around 8% fiber by weight. Compare that to bananas, which are less than 3% fiber by weight. Black beans also have 7.6 grams of protein per half cup, again, about 8% by weight. Bananas, in comparison, have only 1% protein by weight. The carbohydrates in Bananas are evenly divided into glucose and fructose, with some sucrose. (My sources doesn’t break down the carbs in black beans, but those carbs are of course mostly starch, which is to say a polysaccharide carbohydrate… a conglomeration of glucose molecules that is fairly easily converted to glycogen by the body).

Are Black Beans a Protein Source?

Some people want to say that all beans are a good source of protein. That’s really not true. Beans aren’t a protein source.

In Zone terms, a half cup of black beans contains one block of protein, and two blocks of carbs. That makes it a carb source, primarily. When you eat beans, you need to think of them as a carb source, and limit them the same way you would limit any carb.

But let’s be serious here. Beans DO HAVE SIGNIFICANT QUANTITIES OF PROTEIN. About 25 calories worth in a 1/2 cup serving of black beans.

Now, some CrossFitters and Paleo-gurus (e.g. Robb Wolf) will tell you that, if all your protein doesn’t come from animal sources, it just doesn’t count. I don’t think that’s accurate. I don’t think it’s based on hard science. I think its based on our argument with vegetarians. We don’t want them to win the “where should I get my protein” argument, so we claim that vegetable protein doesn’t count.

Look, I’m no vegetarian. I don’t want beans cooked in my chili, and I don’t want someone telling me that I can get all the protein I need from Broccoli. But there’s a middle ground here.

The amino acid profile of the protein in Black Beans is very similar to the amino profile of the protein in Chicken. The main difference is that the beans are comparatively deficient in Tryptophan and Cystine. When you eat a variety of foods, all the amino acids you eat ultimately end up in the same soup and… it’s all protein. If you eat Black Beans along with animal sources of protein like eggs, then you’ll have a LOT of every essential amino acid. Black Beans do have at least some of absolutely all of the essential aminos: Isoleucine (plenty), Leucine (plenty), Lysine (plenty), Methionine (not much), Phenylalanine (plenty), Threonine (plenty), Tryptophan (minimal), and Valine (plenty). You can easily verify this data with the USDA nutrient database. So we should take the protein in the beans seriously.

Cavemen Don’t Eat Beans?

Paleo-partisans argue that black beans should be banned from a serious caveman’s diet along with all legumes. Besides the evolutionary claim, which remains hypothetical/theoretical (i.e. the hypothesis is that we can’t really process or digest foods that were introduced into our diet too recently to affect our evolutionary development), Paleo-diet gurus claim that indigestible elements and toxic lectins in legumes contribute to ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and other systemic digestive problems (again, my example is Robb Wolf, sorry Robb, I don’t mean to pick on you here).

But You Mentioned That Beans Have Lectins…

Yes. Beans have a lot of lectins, comparably speaking, which are why they can’t be eaten raw.

The danger of lectins in the human diet is very real. I do admit that lectins really are poisonous… this issue is not a joke. Lectins are the engineering basis of some pretty nasty chemical weapons (e.g. ricin).

Also, lectins have clearly been linked to such a wide variety of auto-immune and inflammatory illnesses (just see the first three paragraphs of this peer reviewed study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition {.pdf} for a list of conditions with citations to medical reports).

Furthermore, in vivo lectin poisoning is a real dietary concern. Undercooked beans will make people really sick, and can possibly kill. See this government website for details. No beans should ever be eaten raw or only partially cooked. Especially kidney beans, which have high levels of lectin. However, cooking, especially extended, low temperature cooking, will disable most of the lectins in beans, and render even kidney beans edible. So will processes of fermentation and culturing.

Obviously, we should limit our exposure to lectins.

The only problem is that all foods have some kind of ‘lectin’ in them; as Nachbar and Oppenheim put it: “lectins are not exclusively found in legumes but are widely distributed throughout the plant kingdom.” Grains and starchy vegetables have them, but so do fruits and berries.

If you’re eating “in the Zone” (meaning, high protein, moderate carbs, plus fat) and supplementing with Omega-3 fish oil, you are controlling insulin, and inflammation, are at a lower risk, I think of being seriously impacted by occasional ingestion of small quantities of lectins or from legumes and grains or other sources.

Of course, there is one more reason, perhaps the best one, to avoid Black Beans entirely: all the hippies seem to think that black beans are God’s gift to vegans. Relax, I’m only kidding.

Conclusions

So, just how dangerous are the lectins in black beans?

Notice I said a “small amount” that is well cooked.

Part of the answer to the question is: how many are you eating, how long have they been cooked, and how have they been prepared?

So, the final word: are black beans paleo? no. But they might be good for you, if eaten occasionally, for specific purpose, and always in moderation. Don’t go chowing on them every day. If you really want, have a few of them now and then. It’s compatible with what I call the flexible-paleo-zone way.


Update as of October, 2010. I stopped eating beans entirely a while back now. Partly by being convinced that chronic repetitive exposure to lectins could have long term health consequences. But I still think that eating well cooked or fermented or cultured beans every now and then is not likely to kill you.

Recommended Reading: Mark Sisson on Lectins.

3 comments to Yeah, but is it Paleo? Black Beans

  • m3

    nice, i like it.
    i’ve been a little boring this week with food. I made a pot of burrito filling consisting of: whole grain rice (a blend of two of the mixes that are available at EF), Black Beans and Chicken…oh, and the chipotle peppers (omg, I’m gonna die of the nightshades!!!) ;)

    i have to say that I probably overdid it with the whole grain rices…i won’t get into details but, not enough mastication for the saliva to break through the vegetable matter…

    but, it was good…and overall healthy, imo. a bit heavy in carbs but…i don’t sit at a desk (nothing personal..i just don’t sit at a desk).

    your research and commentary has convinced me to add fish oil in.

  • Vincent

    Hello,

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I found this when searching if Black Beans are Paleo or not. I’ve recently started Crossfit (October to date) and the most interesting thing about it is the nutrition plans generally associated with the CF program. A lot of different opinions about what is, or is not, and what is acceptable, or not acceptable. So far I’ve found that it’s what works for you, your budget, and provides you with a steady increase in performance.

    Thank you for this article and I look forward to reading more from this website.

    Sincerely, your fellow Crossfit athlete,

    Vincent

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