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The question: I want to add beans and lentils to my diet. Is one bean healthier than another? Are canned beans okay?

The answer: I encourage you to eat legumes – beans and lentils – in place of meat a few times each week to help increase your intake of vegetarian protein and fibre, while cutting back on saturated fat. Legumes are also excellent source of protein, fibre, folate, magnesium, iron and disease-fighting plant chemicals.

There's no question legumes are good for you. Studies have found that eating legumes four times a week helps lower the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and prostate cancer. Legumes are also an important component of the DASH diet, a scientifically proven diet to lower high blood pressure. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.)

While all types of legumes are nutritious, their nutrient profiles do differ somewhat. For example, if you're looking for a legume that has the most protein, choose soybeans. A 3/4-cup serving of cooked soybeans has 21.5 grams of protein, the same amount as the whites of six large eggs or a three-ounce serving of chicken or meat. (Edamame, green soybeans, deliver 17 g of protein per 3/4-cup.)

Top picks for magnesium – a mineral that helps regulate blood sugar and blood pressure – include soybeans (111 milligrams per 3/4-cup), black beans (90 mg), navy beans (72 mg) and pinto beans (64 mg). To put these numbers in perspective, women need 310 to 320 mg of magnesium daily; men require 420.

Lentils deliver the most folate, a B vitamin that's used to make DNA and red blood cells. A 3/4-cup serving contains 269 micrograms of the nutrient, 70 per cent of a day's worth (400 mcg). Runners-up for folate include pinto beans (221 mcg per 3/4-cup), chickpeas (212 mcg), black beans (192 mcg) and navy beans (191 mcg). Legumes highest in plant iron include soybeans, lentils, chickpeas, navy beans and kidney beans.

You can't go wrong adding any type of legume to your diet – they're all packed with nutrition. Canned beans are a convenient alternative if you don't have the time, or the inclination, to cook dried beans. Be sure to drain and rinse canned beans in a colander before eating to remove excess sodium and gas-producing carbohydrates.

Canned beans are already cooked so they're ready to add to salads, soups, pasta sauces, chili, grain pilafs and tacos. A few of my favourite meatless meals based on legumes include black bean tacos, Greek salad with chickpeas and a hearty minestrone soup. Legumes are incredibly versatile, so be creative.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct ( ).

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