Beans, beans the nutritional goldmine

Donna Winham, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition. 

Courtesy of Iowa State University

Donna Winham, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition. 

Kendal Gast

For many, a sirloin steak is preferable over the equivalent in beans for their daily protein intake. However, for those who can’t afford meat, beans may be a respectable substitute. 

Donna Winham, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, is trying to change society’s perception of the humble bean.

At the intersection of nutrition and public health policy, part of Winham’s mission is educating the general public on proper diets, especially people with low incomes. 

“What I like to have happen with my research is to have people recognize that we can take the cultural practices people are already doing and amplify them instead of telling people they should do something different,” Winham said.

Her most recent research included a survey conducted that was on a sample size of more than 400 low-income Latinas in Maricopa County, Ariz. 

The objectives of the study were to determine awareness of bean health benefits for low-income women and to evaluate the differences in assimilation level, or how much the women have adjusted to life in the United States.

“Beans are culturally familiar foods and are nutritional gold mines,” Winham said. “They can lower people’s risk of heart attack, diabetes and some cancers. Beans and legumes are also gluten free.”

Results of the survey indicated that slightly more than 60 percent of women surveyed agreed that beans can improve their nutritional intake and help them feel full. On the other hand, a little more than half indicated neutral when asked about their knowledge of beans’ ability to lower cholesterol, cancer risk or control blood sugar.

Regarding assimilation level, those who were bi-cultural or English dominant were more likely to agree that beans can improve intestinal health, while Hispanic-dominant responders were less likely to agree.

A notable portion of Hispanic dominant women also disagreed with questions that asked if eating beans could aid in weight loss, while very few English dominant women disagreed. 

These cultural findings suggest that the more assimilated a person or family is, the more likely they are to have knowledge of bean benefits.

Lack of knowledge about nutrition can be found at all levels of income status, including students at Iowa State. Rose Martin, senior lecturer in food science and human nutrition, points to the phrase, “You are what you eat.”

“Be aware of your misconceptions,” Martin said. “That’s hard in nutrition because we have things on our mind that we never stop to think, ‘that could be wrong.'”

Instead, Martin said society should change the phrase to “we are not what we eat,” because students take the phrase too literally and think “I’m more muscle if I eat more protein” or “I am more fat if I eat more food fat.” 

ISU researchers and professors are striving to change the way the population thinks about nutrition by advocating for culturally relevant, enabling approaches rather than pointing out a potentially incorrect behavior.