The magical tepary beans

I am waiting on hold for my vet and hear a loop message, over and over: “Is your cat or dog obese? Ask us about the signs of diabetes.”

This makes me crazy. Unlike cats, dogs don’t get diabetes because they’re fat.

The Obesity-Canine Diabetes Myth

Almost all* canine diabetes is akin to Type 1 — sometimes called “juvenile”– diabetes in humans, the type that is hereditary and can’t be prevented or reversed through diet.

Being obese is not healthy for any animal. Eating high fat foods can put pressure on the pancreas of dogs that are predisposed towards pancreatitis,  which in turn can cause diabetes. But this being a guilt-free zone, I want to make it clear that, if your dog gets diabetes, it’s not your fault. It’s the roll of the genetic dice.

Short rant over.

The diabetic diet

If canine diabetes can’t be reversed, there are some things that can help the insulin that needs to be administered to do its job. While there’s no consensus among veterinary experts about precisely what a doggy diabetic should eat, most agree that the addition of fiber to the diet helps keep blood sugar levels on an even keel.

Fiber sources

When Frankie was first diagnosed, my vet suggested a diabetes prescription diet, but it had way too many chemicals in it for me. One of the other vets in the practice suggested that, if I wouldn’t go along with the prescription diet, at least I should add fiber to Frankie’s food.

She suggested Metamucil, a popular psyllium fiber supplement for humans.

I respectfully demurred here too.

Instead, I chose a kibble with a high fiber content, Wellness Core, and on the recommendation of another vet supplemented it with a fresh protein source — usually low-fat beef or chicken.

Not too long ago, Frankie was having digestive problems, so I stopped giving him kibble and switched him over to Stella and Chewy’s dehydrated raw food patties. But — aside from the fact that they are expensive and Frankie seems to be turning against them — their maximum fiber content is only 4%.

I recalled another fiber source that I could use as a supplement, this one natural, if a bit unusual: Tepary beans.

Some bean background

Once upon a time, before white flour and sugar were introduced into their diets, the native peoples of the Southwest did not get diabetes. Now the disease is rampant on many reservations, and especially on that of the Tohono O’odham people, which spreads across southern Arizona and northern Mexico west of Tucson.

It has been estimated that some 70% of Tohono O’odham people get diabetes.

The good news: Many of the Tohono O’odham are turning to traditional native foods to prevent or reverse diabetes, and one of the foods that has turned out to be the most effective is the tepary bean.

The Terrific Tepary

The tepary bean has been described as “probably the healthiest bean on the planet“:

Tepary beans have more protein content (23–30%) than common beans such as pinto, kidney, and navy. They have higher fiber and a lower glycemic index (41-44)  as well as higher levels of oil, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium. They are lower in polyunsaturated fat and in the anti-enzymatic compounds which make common beans hard to digest (Hamama and Bhardwaj 2002, Virginia State University) [translation: tepary beans don’t make you fart like other beans do]. A high fiber food, they digest slowly, providing sustained energy and making them a great energy food for athletes, dieters and diabetics.

Another bonus:  the bean is native to the Sonoran Desert and amazingly drought tolerant, so it’s easy to grow anywhere.

Getting and using teparies

It’s easy for me to get tepary beans. I’m five minutes from the retail outlet for Native Seeds/SEARCH — a wonderful organization devoted to preserving endangered native crops of the American Southwest and Northwest Mexico — which sells bags of the beans. But anyone can order them online from the organization.

How do I use them? Basically, I grind them up so that they’re more easily digestible and sprinkle two teaspoons over Frankie’s food. They taste nutty and he seems to like them — or, at least, they don’t interfere with his enjoyment of his mainstay meals.

Hey, Frankie is a desert dog — at least I think he wasn’t imported from Chicago. Though he didn’t get diabetes from eating sugar and white flour, there’s no reason he can’t benefit from the foods of his region.

*In some breeds, unspayed females may be predisposed towards getting diabetes during diestrus (the phase right after heat) or during pregnancy, and it may be reversed when the dog is neutered; see Diabetes in Elkhounds is Associated with Diestrus and Pregnancy

25 thoughts on “Tepary beans: A desert boon for diabetics (dogs too)”

  1. I don’t have any experience with diabetic dogs. But your article is a good example of how to gain knowledge from your vet and add your own values and judgment to make good decisions for your dog.

    I’m impressed by all the thought you’ve put into caring for Frankie. He’s a very lucky boy.

    1. I’m sure you’d do the same for Honey, Pamela. And knowledge is power. I’ve always been a research geek so it’s good to have a chance to apply what I learn to something practical for a change (rather, than, say, deconstructing The Waste Land…)

    1. I should caution that they take a loooong time to prepare — I bought a slow cooker expressly for that purpose, though I imagine soaking overnight and boiling for a few hours would do the trick. Enjoy!

  2. Thank you for the link. I have yet to have a diabetic dog but lost two beloved cats to the disease :(. I think tepary beans sound like a good all-round supplement for my rescue dogs’ diets. Fiber can’t hurt and thank God they don’t facilitate farting – my two personal Dachshunds have that covered well -phew!

    1. I wonder if it would help cats, since their diabetes IS reversible sometimes; I’ve never heard of cats eating any sort of beans, though! And yes, I would think that it would be a health protein and fiber source with a lots of iron for the rescue. It’s funny with little dogs — you think, how much can they fart….until they do!

  3. Neat article. I’m a grad student in a neuroscience research lab, surrounded by very intelligent people (mostly), but I cannot tell you how many times, when someone learns of Buzz, they say (not so politely, might I add) “why don’t you take him for walks?” Ughhhh. Then I politely inform them of your 3rd paragraph and that usually shuts them up. I hate being looked at like a bad pet parent by people who aren’t informed of pet health issues…. Anyways, we decided against a high fiber diet (and went with a high protein diet) because 1) it’s a carbohydrate (even though it mostly doesn’t get digested) and 2) these articles —, But I do know high protein isn’t recommended for older dogs, what constitutes ‘older’, I do not know…

    1. You can’t blame your fellow researchers when the veterinary media seem to suggest the opposite. I’m on a mission to try to change the message — you should help too. Your next blog post!

      I just forwarded you an email with a 2009 report about fiber from a canine diabetes researcher who is on the 2003 abstract you linked to that confirms what you say about fiber. But the researcher at Tufts I just interviewed a month ago is a fiber proponent. Also, tepary beans don’t cause diarrhea and they have a high protein content… Frankie’s diet remains a work in progress; he had a hypoglycemic attack when he was fed the freeze dried grain-free raw food patties in the right caloric portion for his size…

      1. He’s had more in the last two months — four! — than he’s had in the last 2 1/2 years which is upsetting but at least I’ve been there to deal with them immediately and they weren’t severe; he just walks around like he’s drunk but recovers immediately after eating/getting Caro syrup.

        1. That really is scary. When we get to that bridge, I’ll have to get in contact with you to see how you handle it. We bought Karo syrup, but have no idea how much to give him, how do we get it to him if he won’t eat it.. those types of q’s. There is another diabetic dog blog ( where the guy gives his diabetic dog probiotics for his digestive problems. Have you ever heard of that?

          1. Don’t worry — if you catch it early on, as I always have, it’s very easy to deal with. The first two times, I just gave Frankie food and, if you ever have low blood sugar yourself, you know that you tend to be ravenous; in fact, one of the ways I knew Frankie was hypoglycemic was that he jumped up into my lap and tried to eat what I was eating! Natalie at recommended giving him two teaspoons of Karo syrup immediately lest his blood sugar drop too low before the food could take effect and so I did that these last two times (and then fed him). Believe me, he slurped the syrup up too!

            As for the probiotics, I’ve tried those when Frankie was having digestive problems and they worked, but they gave the food a taste he didn’t like — which presented a problem. So I’m always trying to achieve the balance of a food he likes that won’t upset his stomach.

  4. Great, thanks! I’m sorry to hear about his hypoglycemic attack, I can only imagine how scary that can be. We got lucky with Buzz’s food, but that really could change at any moment.

  5. Hi Edie.

    I agree with you that fiber can be beneficial for diabetic dogs. And also that genetics plays a bigger role in diabetes in dogs than weight. (That’s not true for cats!) But I had never heard of tepary beans.

    Thanks, Edie. I learned something today. 🙂

    1. That’s nice to hear, Lorie! Tepary beans are my own uniquely Southwestern contribution to the diabetes discussion. You never know about crossover when writing about food and dogs!

    2. Thank you for your article!!!
      I am from those tribes (Akimel O’otham/Tohono O’odham) but i live away from home in utah. I have a pure bred shih tzu and we recently went down home and i bought around 200 bucks in tepary beans (bavi) and garbanzo beans (kalvash) as well as some ground wheat and ground corn grown on our land (especially mine, since Ramona Farms leases a small amount of my family land for their farms. Therefore I love to support her Farms whenever possible.)
      Anyway– i share my food with my Tzu girl, but wasn’t sure about the tepary beans being okay/safe for her.
      Your article was a great help– i will def be adding some of these Bavi to her dish to help keep her healthy. Thanks again for your article that will help benefit my “off rez/rez dog” lol.

      1. That is so interesting! Thank you for coming here and telling your fascinating story. Hugs to your sweet shih tzu — not the stereotypical rez dog, is she?!

  6. I’ve never heard of Tepary beans before. Kudos to you to look for a fiber solution to the Metamucil. Metamucil produces gas and I don’t think that is something that either you or Frankie would have enjoyed.

    1. I’ve eaten them and they have a subtle, nutty taste — but I don’t think they stand on their own. You’d have to research some recipes to liven them up (I only cook for Frankie, not for me!). Also, they need to be soaked and cooked for a long time.

  7. Oh no, not another miscommunication on diabetes – and from your vet, well, from his on hold messaging system. I think it’s great that you found a much better quality diet for Frankie rather than going with the bag the vet’s receptionist hands you. It made me smile to think of you hearing the Dr. talk about Metamucil and then sorting out these pretty fantastic sounding beans!

    I am sorry to hear about the recent increase in hypoglycemic attacks – Frankie is a lucky boy to have such a carefully observant person! And Karo syrup…filing that!

    1. Thanks, Mary. It’s one of those Q: How do you know if someone on the trail has a diabetic dog? A: If she’s carrying Karo syrup along with her poop bags! Karo syrup is almost as magical as the beans — it’s super cheap and never gets solidified like honey or other sugar sources do.

      I think I just have to get used to the fact that Frankie’s new insulin is far more concentrated than what I used to give him. I used to adjust the doses much more easily; now the tiniest increase can be too much, apparently!

  8. Hey what a great and helpful post! Who knew about tepary beans? My dogs love the bean, veggie, and legume-based foods that I make for myself and I usually try to share 🙂

    Makes me sad when I hear of people of other cultures adopting modern diets, then getting diseases that before were unheard of. More whole foods for humans and dogs would be a welcome change!

    1. Thanks, Kirsten. The imposition of “western” diets on the native peoples of the U.S. — they didn’t often adopt them voluntarily — is a very sad story. I’m glad there’s a back to the roots — and seeds! — movement that’s looking to more healthful and location friendly settings.

  9. I have learned to doubt everything. I know it’s cynical, but I can’t help it, it seems like the medical industry is so departmentalized and specialized that they can’t give you a holistic answer. Like the Metamucil, I checked the ingredients because my mom took that when she wasn’t “regular”. I believe the first ingredient is sucrose. What would that do to my diabetic dog?

    I have a 9-year-old diabetic Yorkie. I feed him Taste of the Wild. He’s been on insulin for 6 months, and just recently got his first hypoglycemic attack. I freaked out, didn’t know what to do, checked his numbers and fed him. Instantly he was better, but now I’m wondering if he’s just needing less insulin?

    When he was 6 lbs (about 4 below his normal weight), the vet said to give him 2 units twice a day. Now he is 8.5 lbs, and we had lowered his insulin to 1.5 units twice a day. Last night we gave him .25 of a unit, and this morning the same. We’ll have to take him to the vet, but could it be possible that his pancreas is up and running again?

    1. I’m afraid diabetes isn’t reversible in dogs and the pancreas can’t heal itself.

      You definitely need to adjust your dog’s dose day by day. You said you tested his numbers. If you feel comfortable blood testing before meals, that’s one way to deal with it. Definitely ask your vet. And good luck! I know how scary hypoglycemia is.

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