"Beans, beans, they're good for your heart ..." So goes the theme to a popular children's song -- but little did we know how true that chorus would turn out to be.
Beans and other legumes like lentils may be the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people all over the globe. In 2004, the Food Habits in Later Life study was undertaken amongst five different groups from Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia. Of all the food factors examined, only one was associated with longer life in every group -- their legume intake. For every 20-gram increase (about two tablespoons!) in daily intake there was an 8 percent reduction in mortality. This caused nutritional researcher Michael Greger to quip, "... if a can of beans is 250 grams and you get 8 percent lower mortality for every 20 grams, maybe if you eat a can a day you'll live forever? Let's find out!"
The blue zones
Around the same time the research above was published, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and the world's best longevity researchers to identify places around the world where people live measurably longer and healthier. They identified five specific areas that they called "blue zones" where they found people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than here in the United States.
Among the dietary factors that these people had in common was a great reliance on a rich array of vegetables and fresh fruits, with meat eaten only on rare occasions. The cornerstone of these long-lived peoples is beans, with the favorites including fava, black, soy and lentils. In fact, so strong is the research behind the health benefits of beans, researchers in Taiwan published a paper in 2012 titled, "A bean-free diet increases the risk of all-cause mortality among Taiwanese women." So if you want to live long, eat beans, and if you want to increase your risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and the like, eat bean-free.
They're good for your heart
Beans have megawatt nutritional power and provide truly amazing disease protection. Their low caloric density with plenty of protein, fiber, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals give them strong anti-diabetic and anti-obesity effects. They also lower cardiovascular risk by lowering cholesterol, lowering inflammation and blood pressure. One study, for example, showed that those without legumes in their diet may be at quadruple the risk of suffering high blood pressure. Legumes such as chickpeas have been used to treat high blood pressure and diabetes for thousands of years.
In another study, looking at cholesterol, researchers took people eating enough saturated fat to get levels over 200 and then had them trade out some of the grains they were eating for chickpeas. The result? In five months their cholesterol dropped about 20 percent to 160.
Another study showed that simply adding two servings a day of lentils, chickpeas or beans cut cholesterol levels so much that many participants moved below the range where statin drugs are prescribed.
Beans and other legumes are truly superfoods. We avoid them to our own hurt. Nevertheless, if you are not accustomed to eating beans regularly I encourage you to take it slow, starting with about one to two tablespoons a day and building up from there after a few weeks. This will give your body a chance to build up its good bacteria and avoid painful bloating or excess gas. Dried and canned beans are virtually equivalent in nutrition, so go with what you prefer or is most convenient. Beans are the basis of a seemingly endless variety of dishes, limited only by your imagination or cookbooks, so start working them in. You will be paid back many-fold in improved health.
Thomas Morrison is a fitness coordinator at Bradley Wellness Center.