The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California live on average 10 years longer than the average American. While researching their diet secrets, I stumbled upon the fact that beans are one of their staple foods. Researching further into the humble legume led me across other studies that cite bean intake as the most important predictor of survival in older people from around the globe. Meanwhile, eating a bean-free diet might actually increase our risks for death and disease. Yikes! So what’s so special about the legume and how much should we be eating to gain its health benefits? And maybe most importantly, how can we make them yummy and, um, less gassy?
Read on for these important details.
The Mighty Bean
An increasing body of research supports the benefits of a plant-based diet, and legumes specifically, in the reduction of chronic disease risks. Studies have found that eating one serving a day (half a cup) of beans, peas, chickpeas or lentils can significantly reduce “bad cholesterol” and therefore the risk of cardiovascular disease. That same serving provides roughly 20% of your daily fiber requirement and a high fiber diet has been linked to massive reductions in risk for stroke, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health risks.
Weight control. Beans and pulses like lentils also have a low glycemic index, meaning they break down slowly and don’t spike our blood sugar and cause hunger, which helps us stay full longer and keep our waistlines trimmer. In fact, researchers have found that bean eaters weigh, on average, 7 pounds less and have slimmer waists than their bean-avoiding counterparts – yet they consume 199 calories more per day if they were adults and an incredible 335 calories more if they were teenagers. With their fiber and water content – two ingredients that make you feel fuller, faster – adding beans to your diet helps cut calories without feeling deprived.
Nutrition-packed. Beans also contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals. For instance, many beans, including white beans and black beans, contain 10% of your daily recommended intake of iron, 10% of potassium, and around 6% of calcium. These beans also contain hefty thiamine, folate, phosphorus, manganese, zinc and magnesium levels. Edamame, a soy bean and one of Japan’s favorite beans, is a superfood but actually, so are most beans.
Antioxidant-loaded. Beans are also high in a class of phytochemicals known as antioxidants, which incapacitate cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Free radicals have been implicated in everything from cancer and aging to neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture study, researchers measured the antioxidant capacities of more than 100 common foods. Three types of beans made the top four: small red beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans. And three others – black beans, navy beans, and black-eyed peas – achieved top-40 status.
Linked to longer lifespans. In a remarkable three-year study, researchers from different institutions looked at five different cohorts in Japan, Sweden, Greece, and Australia. Of all the food factors they looked at, only legume intake was associated with a longer lifespan across the board. Whether it was the Japanese eating their soy, the Swedes eating their brown beans and peas, or those in the Mediterranean eating lentils, chickpeas, and white beans, legume intake was associated with an increased lifespan. In fact, it was the only result that was plausible, consistent, and statistically significant from the data across all the populations combined. For every 20 gram increase in daily legume intake (just two tablespoons worth of beans), researchers saw an 8% reduction in risk of death.
So yeah, beans are good for us.
Eat More Beans
Americans aren’t eating enough beans. In a year we consume roughly 7 pounds of them on average. That’s not much when you consider that a typical can of beans is just shy of a pound at 15.5 oz and that the latest dietary guidelines recommend 3 cups a week. That’s basically a half cup a day for six days of the week. In layman’s terms, that’s 2 cans of beans a week. Are you eating 2 cans of beans a week? Probably not if you’re like most Americans.
Two cans a week is pretty doable actually. More is better. They are a versatile ingredient, something I never realized when I was young because my family only made pinto bean soup. Ugh. Talk about turning me off beans! Only later in life did I discover the magic of black beans in Mexican cuisine, chick pea salads, hummus – let alone all the delicious soups and dishes you can make with them, including a killer delicious Italian recipe that’s revolves around white beans, sausage, and tomato sauce, plus herbs. They’re great at breakfast too – just try the British style baked beans. And don’t forget your lentils. They’re more than a soup. Need ideas? Just look up Indian lentil curry recipes for inspiration.
While few people have time to cook dry beans at home, the canned varieties are pretty healthy and only lightly processed. Steer clear of the brands with calcium chloride (used in “low sodium” or “no salt added” labeling even though calcium chloride IS a salt and comes with health risks). Read the ingredients on the label. You can buy beans in just water that taste just fine. However you prepare your beans, they are great additions to soups and make fantastic cold salads when paired with tomatoes, cucumber and a little olive oil and vinegar.
Another great thing about beans? They are inexpensive and since many are grown in North America, it’s also an opportunity to buy and eat locally while supporting our farmers.
Not So Gassy
People love to sing the “toot” song when it comes to beans but it turns out that people’s concerns about excessive flatulence from eating beans may be exaggerated.
Perceiving what’s already there. In studies done on beans and gas, participants were given half a cup of beans a day for several months. Only a few percent of participants experienced increased levels of gas – but so did a small percent of the control group that weren’t served beans. The takeaway? People thinking beans are going to cause gas may just be more likely to notice the gas they normally have.
It’s not permanent. Those who perceived an increase in flatulence also reported that the issue returned to normal levels after a few weeks. In another study, researchers added more than a half a cup of kidney beans to people’s daily diets, and the research subjects reported that the discomfort they initially felt within the first day or two quickly disappeared. So basically we just have to stick with it as our bodies adjust to our new eating routine.
Make Beans a Staple of Your Diet
The bottom line is that an increasing body of research supports the benefits of a plant-based diet, and legumes specifically, in the reduction of chronic disease risks. In some people, increased bean consumption may result in more flatulence initially, but it will decrease over time if we just keep it up. The nutritional attributes of beans far outweigh the potential for transitory discomfort and their long-term health benefits are incredible.
Beans are cheap and easy to find year round. Start eating a half a cup a day or 2 cans a week. That’s manageable. Plenty of delicious recipes exist across the internet that will take you beyond the boring (and stinky) pinto bean soup of yesteryear. And as with the legume-loving Seventh Day Adventists of California, eating beans may make our term here on earth even longer.
Like this article? Please share it so that others can learn these health secrets and start living their best lives now.