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Beans, beans, the magical … longevity food?
True, these tiny, unassuming morsels are filling and nutritious, and as a basis of a plant-based diet, good for the planet as well. But how could the family of legumes — which includes beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas — help us live longer?
“In every blue zone I have visited, beans and other legumes were — and still are — a major component of the daily diet,” said author and entrepreneur Dan Buettner, who has spent decades reporting on “blue zones,” unique communities around the globe where people live long and heathy lives, up to and past 100 years.
Residents of these areas share a common environment and lifestyle — including a plant-based diet — that scientists believe contribute to their longevity. Blue zones have been discovered in Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California; and the Italian island of Sardinia, just off the coast of Italy.
In Sardinia, where one of the first groups of centenarians was studied, garbanzo and fava are the legumes of choice, Buettner said. Also known as chickpeas, garbanzos are the prime ingredients of a minestrone that is usually eaten at more than one meal, allowing the residents of Sardinia to get the benefits of beans at least twice a day.
The recipe was given to Buettner by one of the three brothers and six sisters of the Melis family of Perdasdefogu, Sardinia, which he said is the “longest living family in the world.”
“There are nine siblings whose collective age was 851 years,” Buettner said. “Every day of their life they had the exact same minestrone with sourdough bread and a small three-ounce glass of red wine.”
All members of the legume family are full of nutrients, including copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, zinc, lysine, which is an essential amino acid, and lots of protein and fiber.
“Fiber rewards you with a healthy gut microbe and lower inflammation and better immune function, said Buettner, noting that “only 5% to 10% of Americans get the fiber they need.”
Each type of bean has a different nutritional profile, so eating a variety of beans may be best, Buettner said. Aduki, or the red mung bean, has more fiber than many other varieties, while fava beans are packed with the antioxidant lutein. Black and dark red kidney beans are full of potassium and chickpeas have lots of magnesium.
“Beans are also packed with plant protein, which is healthier because it has more nutrients with fewer calories than animal protein,” he added.
In fact, Buettner said, pair beans with whole grains and you have all of the amino acids that make up a nutritionally whole protein — similar to what is found in meat.
In Nicoya, Costa Rica, for example, people might begin their day with Gallo Pinto, the country’s national dish, Buettner said.
“It’s a combination of beans cooked down to a gravy, seasoned with onion, green pepper, and some aromatics like basil or thyme and maybe garlic,” he said.
“Then they mix in yesterday’s white rice. That’s interesting because by cooling overnight the rice undergoes metamorphosis,” Buettner said. “The starch in the rice becomes resistant, which means the body absorbs it more slowly, so your blood sugar doesn’t spike as high.”
And while the purple potato is historically credited as the primary longevity staple for the people of Okinawa, Japan, the second most prominent food in their diet is soybeans, Buettner said.
“The Okinawans are eating tofu, often with every meal, so it’s like their bread,” he said. “Usually, a breakfast will be really chunky miso soup with chunks of tofu — but they don’t cut the tofu into cubes like we do, they break it so it can better absorb flavors.”
Good for the body and the wallet
Studies point to the health benefits of beans, backing up what people in blue zones have long known, Buettner said. The soluble fiber in beans can cut cholesterol and help prevent type 2 diabetes by stabilizing blood sugar. A 2001 study found eating beans four times a week cut heart disease by 22%. A 2004 study found people lived approximately eight more years for every 20-gram intake of legumes — that’s about an ounce.
Beans even help with weight loss — a 2016 review of studies found people who ate up to 9 ounces of beans each day over six weeks lost three-quarters of a pound more than people who didn’t eat beans.
In addition to all of these benefits, beans and their cousins are also cheap to purchase and can be grown at home in a variety of soils, making them the perfect food to help economically disadvantaged populations live longer, Buettner said.
“Most of my day job for the past 13 years has been working with cities to help lower obesity,” he said, referencing the Blue Zone Project, community transformation programs that have helped Americans in cities such as Spencer, Iowa, and Beach Cities, California.
“I always hear American families cannot afford to feed their families healthy food,” Buettner said. “That’s unfortunately true when it comes to organic and other fresh foods, but I tell them they can still get most of the way there by making beans and whole grains the basis of many meals.”
OK, fine, beans are good for us. But how do we deal with the, uh, uncomfortable and sometimes loud and smelly result?
“If you want to avoid gas, the way to start with beans is with a couple tablespoons a day,” Buettner said. “Then you go up to four tablespoons and over the course of two weeks you work yourself up to a cup.
“Now you’re feeding the good bacteria in your gut and your microbiome is ready for it,” he added. “I have no gas at all from eating beans.”
Sardinia Minestrone Soup
John Buettner prefers to use dried beans for this classic, hearty dish. Soak all three legumes overnight ahead of making the soup. The cooking time will depend on how fresh they are. “The older the bean, the longer it takes for them to cook,” he said.
Makes 8 generous servings
- ⅓ pound dried garbanzos (¾ cup)
- ⅓ pound dried white beans (¾ cup)
- ⅓ cup dried pinto or red beans
- 4 to 6 stalks celery
- 4 to 6 carrots, preferably organic
- 1 medium onion, white or yellow
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 to 8 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or freshly ground black pepper
- Low-sodium vegetable stock (optional)
- 1 14-ounce can chopped or stewed tomatoes
- 1 ½ cups potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt to taste
- Freshly sliced avocado for serving
- Freshly grated Parmesan for serving
1. Drain the presoaked garbanzos and beans in a colander and microwave them in a separate bowl of water for 10 minutes — about the amount of time you need to chop the celery, carrots and onion into approximately ½-inch pieces.
2. Add olive oil to a large pot over low heat and sauté celery, carrots, onion, garlic and pepper flakes until the onion pieces are translucent, about 3 minutes.
3. Rinse and drain the beans in a colander and add to the same pot containing the aromatics, along with 6 to 8 cups water. Use vegetable stock instead of water, if desired. Add the tomatoes, potatoes, oregano and bay leaf and slow cook over low heat until beans are tender, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Remove the bay leaf and season with salt.
4. When ready to serve, top with sliced avocado and/or Parmesan cheese.
Short on time? For quicker soup, Buettner suggests using a pressure cooker for 25 minutes — except for lentils, which only take about 5 minutes. He prefers to bring the pressure cooker to peak pressure — about when it “starts to whistle,” he said, then turn it off and let it cool down naturally.
Let the flavors meld. In addition, “this minestrone tastes best the next day, as all of flavors combine,” Buettner said. “If you want to store it more than 2 days, it’s better to freeze it.”
This recipe is adapted from “The Blue Zones American Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100” by Dan Buettner.