Want to live a long, healthy life? Add this powerful food to your plate.

“How to Live to Be 100.” That was the title of a course I taught when I was a professor at Georgia State University. Faculty were asked to develop 1-credit hour courses on topics that might interest young college students. Since I was interested in healthy aging, I wondered how I could get a young college student, who thought age 30 was ancient, to think about their own path to wellness beyond the college years. So, I modeled the course on the Blue Zones, observational global research on long-lived populations and the guiding principles common to all groups.

Photo credit The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones gained popularity when it was the 2005 cover story in National Geographic. Students in the class were instructed to develop a personal Blue Zone plan as the capstone project of the course. With 100 students in the class, some enjoyed the project, especially those who were close to their grandparents and saw first-hand the challenges of aging. The Blue Zones team identified 9 commonalities and they fit within the theme of eating well, moving well, and being well…. all tenants of Food & Fitness After 50.

  • Belonging to a community
  • Living in an environment that allows for more movement
  • Putting families first
  • Moderate alcohol intake, for those who drink alcohol
  • Developing routines to defuse stress
  • Finding a purpose in life
  • Surrounding yourself with lifelong friends
  • Learning to eat when 80% full, leading to smaller meals
  • Eating a plant-based diet, especially beans
Image credit The Blue Zones

Focusing on the dietary patterns, one common element in all of the diets of long-lived populations….from Loma Linda, California to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, is beans. Different kinds of beans from kidney beans to black beans, or even soybeans in the Blue Zone in Japan, but they all eat beans.

What makes beans so special? Let’s break the benefits down into three buckets:

  1. Beans have an excellent nutrient profile. “Beans are rich in protein, iron, fiber, the B-vitamin folate, the minerals potassium, magnesium, and choline,” says Dr. Karen Cichy, Research Plant Geneticist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, “and they are one of the most affordable sources of potassium and fiber…. two nutrients in short supply in the diet of most Americans.” Beans are also naturally gluten-free, cholesterol-free, and have a low glycemic index.
  2. Beans have many health benefits. Dr. Cichy cites research supporting the role of beans in weight management, reducing heart disease and cancer risk, and managing diabetes. “Beans contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, prebiotics, protein, resistant starch, and bioactive compounds which increase a feeling of fullness, moderate blood sugar and blood lipid levels, and tamp down oxidation,” says Dr. Cichy.
  3. Beans are sustainable and good for the soil. Beans are capable of nitrogen fixation, which enriches and naturally fertilizes the soil in which they are grown. So, they add nutrients to the soil instead of depleting them.
Photo credit Bush’s Beans

What makes beans so appealing to so many different cultures? Besides the benefits listed above, they are versatile, affordable, and delicious. As a rich source of protein, they can replace meat for vegetarians or extend meat dishes so less animal protein is consumed. Think of the many traditional dishes featuring beans: Cajun-style red beans and rice, French cassoulet with white beans, Caribbean rice and pink beans, refried bean burritos, pasta fagioli, or good old baked beans at a summer cookout, all starring beans.

Photo credit Bush’s Beans

I’m a big fan of canned beans for the ease, convenience, great taste, and long shelf life. On occasion I will use dry beans in a dish, but mostly I reach for the handy can. (Disclosure: I am not a paid influencer, blogger, or spokesperson for Bush’s Beans, but they are my favorite because they hold their texture in cooking and I did ask them for some photography for this post.)

However, some people don’t eat beans citing GI complaints or buying into the myth that beans contain a toxic chemical and shouldn’t be eaten. Others cite the sodium in canned beans as a reason not to use them.

Beans contain a carbohydrate that is not digested in the gut, so it passes to the large intestine where it is fermented causing gas. “The cooking process reduces the gas-forming carbohydrates in beans and for those whose diets are low in fiber, increasing consumption of high fiber foods can lead to gas,” says Dr. Cichy, “however, these same carbohydrates are prebiotics, meaning they feed the healthy microbes in your gut.” Gradually increasing the amount of fiber-rich beans can help your body adjust to the GI effects and canned beans cause less gas than dry beans.

There is a popular diet, called a lectin-free diet, advising against eating foods containing compounds called lectins. Dr. Cichy explains, “lectins are sugar-binding proteins that can attach to red blood cells and alter them to produce compounds called PHAs. Lectins are naturally found in dry beans (as well as other legumes and whole grains) but the soaking and cooking process neutralizes the effect, so there is no need to stay away from cooked beans.” Canned beans are no cause for worry. The bottom-line? Don’t eat raw or undercooked beans!

For those concerned about sodium in canned beans, there are low sodium versions of your favorites, but a simple at-home trick can reduce sodium by rinsing. Research on five popular canned beans (red kidney, garbanzo, pinto, black, and great northern) showed draining and rinsing reduces sodium. Draining canned beans reduced sodium by 36% and draining and rinsing with tap water reduced sodium by 41%.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 1.5 cups of beans (or other legumes, like lentils) each week. For me, no problem, but if you aren’t eating beans, get started! There are many ways to incorporate more beans in your diet and for inspiration check out cannedbean.org and open the possibilities!

Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow her blog, Fit to Eat, by clicking here.