[Food As Medicine]
Beans, Beans and More Beans
by Phoenix Liu, Ph.D
When I visited a friend recently, he showed me a new program he is using to keep track of the calorie count of his daily intake. This friend has been trying to lose weight to deal with both his heart and lower back problems. Just like my friend, many people nowadays are in a similar situation. They struggle to control weight by watching what they eat and exercise as much as possible to burn off the calorie intake. I think it is a great improvement in society that we now don’t take our health for granted. It is a good trend that Western medicine now also adopts complementary and alternative treatments, has developed new food guidelines and recommends eating healthy as part of an alternative treatment against illness.
Our body is the most complex machinery that medicinal professionals have been trying to understand in both Western and Eastern hemispheres throughout human history. Whenever we buy an appliance or a car, an owner’s manual comes along with it. However, we grow up without a user’s manual for our body. Each culture has its own tradition to keep people healthy.
Growing up in a Buddhist family, more plant food is consumed than meat dishes in my family. Among plant food varieties, beans are the most frequently consumed item. As far as beans are concerned, they are inexpensive and easy to prepare, and can help one stick to healthful resolutions. In this article, my concentrations lie in five areas: (1) What I eat; (2) How I prepare; (3) How much I eat; (4) How Often I eat; and (5) In What Mood I eat.
I encourage students in my Taichi groups to eat as much beans as they can. My own breakfast consists of various beans each day, but always combined with pearl barley. Red beans, green beans, black beans, white beans, and soy beans (“yellow beans” in Chinese) are alternated each two days, and occasionally, I include all of them with pearl barley as a treat.
In the article of “Health benefits of Dried Beans, Nuts, and Seeds” (2012), the authors Betsy Hornick, a registered Dietician, and Eric Yarnell, an Associate Professor at Bastyr University, maintained that “The soluble fiber in beans helps lower levels of damaging LDL cholesterol in the blood, thus lowering heart-disease risk. And by slowing down carbohydrate absorption, soluble bean fiber fends off unwanted peaks and valleys in blood glucose levels — especially valuable to people with diabetes. … Legumes are also rich in folic acid, copper, iron, and magnesium — four nutrients many of us could use more of in our diets. In addition, dried beans and peas are generally good sources of iron, which is especially helpful for people who don’t eat meat.” Starting with a bowl of bean soup daily, I know what I eat provides me the minerals I need to pull through the day, lowers my cholesterol level and keeps my glucose level steady.
One needs to plan ahead with dried beans preparation, because it takes 2-3 hours to soak, cook, and simmer. Preparing the bean-soup breakfast should be done the evening before. The procedure is first rinsing the beans in cold water, discarding any bad beans floating to the top, then adding enough fresh water to cover the beans at least three inches, and cooking the soup in a rice cooker. How I prepare my bean soup is extremely easy. Since I never put any other ingredients to the soup, it takes me about seven minutes to rinse and wash the beans before adding water and leave the rest to the rice-cooking machine.
The amount of bean soup I eat each morning depends on how hungry I am that day. Usually, I eat one to two small bowls each morning. According to the “Plain Questions of Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic” (黃帝內經素問), overeating can cause severe physical damage, especially to the function of the spleen. Spleen, by the sense of traditional Chinese medicine, is a functionally defined entity that governs “transportation and absorption” of food essence or live energy and distribute it to other organs. So, how much I eat follows the rule of thumb that the food should satisfy me so that I am no longer hungry, but am also not too full.
After eating the bean soup in morning as breakfast, I store the rest in the refrigerator, if there is any left. When I go home after work, if I am thirsty, I would drink the cold soup, without beans, straight from the fridge in the afternoon when the weather is hot. In the winter time, I might heat up the soup and consume it, with beans, as my afternoon snack. The soup itself is a great drink that is more nutritious than water, but nonetheless not processed or added with unknown substances. Michael Pollan wrote in his book “In Defense of Food” (2008) that most of what we eat today is no longer the product of nature, but of food science. One loaf of bread can contain ten various ingredients, if not more, including unfamiliar ones. Many food products also make health claims on its package because they are processed and not whole food. In this regard, my bean soup is real food because it contains only beans and water, as simple as it can be prepared. In fact, it does not even matter how often I eat it.
When I enjoy my bean soup in the morning, it is the beginning of a day after I had enough of rest, drank my cup of warm water, and did my Taichi exercises. My husband is usually still asleep, so the house is absolutely quiet. In the book of “Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Living” (2010), by Thich Nhat Nanh, a Zen master, and Dr. Lilian Cheung, a Harvard nutritionist, the authors advise the readers to honor the food, engage all our senses, be mindful of the portion, to chew well, to eat slowly, not to skip meals, and to eat plants. Eating breakfast is the only time I can follow all the seven advices. As a result, I am usually in a pleasant mood to enjoy my food, take in the nutrition, and be well prepared for a busy day.
Note that all these beans I listed are in different colors. According to the Chinese medicine theory, certain color of food reflects to one of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) and is beneficial for a certain organ. The recent Western publication also promoted “rainbow of fruits and vegetables for better health” (Julie Garden-Robinson, 2009, 2011) and claimed that nutrients, such as lycopene, lutein and carotene, are present in colored fruits and vegetables.
Like coffee for most of my friends and students, bean soup is something I am happy to wake up for. My lunch and dinner are also very simple in modest amount, with nuts and fruits in between, if I become hungry. The combination of simple bean soup and the daily Taichi practice has helped me stay fit in the last five years. It is another good example for being “mindful” for better health as consequence following the golden rule of sleeping well, eating right, and exercising regularly.
Phoenix Liu, Ph.D., is the Director of the Language House Immersion Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her bachelor’s degree in Animal Science (Taiwan), her master’s degree in Music Education (German), and her doctorate degree in German Philology from the University of Maryland. Dr. Liu holds a black belt in Cuong Nhu karate, a blending type of hard and soft martial arts, and has been a Tai-Chi practitioner for over 15 years. She demonstrates her dedication to Tai-Chi and Qigong by her efforts of combining these two ancient healing arts with music. She has arranged several Tai-Chi forms to music, which have been performed around the metropolitan D.C. area.