Spilling the Beans on the World’s Healthiest Food

Typically when we hear the term “superfood” we think of an exotic and expensive substance. Perhaps a rare mushroom, algae or fruit from deep in the Amazon jungle might be the key to a healthier body. There are certainly a lot of exotic superfood products to choose from in the marketplace. Yet there is one that surpasses them all and is about as far from exotic as you can get.

This superfood is linked to the world’s longest-living people with the lowest rates of death from heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and cancer. If this inexpensive and readily available food is eaten daily, replacing animal-based protein, the benefits can be significant for every health outcome and your budget. Eating just one cup per day can extend life by an extra four years. It turns out that beans are the single best aid to longevity.

Nutritionally, beans are ounce-for-ounce higher in protein than meat, very low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates and loaded with gut-friendly fiber. Beans are inexpensive, filling and loaded with essential minerals like potassium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium (among others). The darker and more colorful beans and legumes contain extra cell-protective antioxidants. Depending on the type, beans are a decent source of vitamins B1, B6, E, K and folate.

Fiber Content

An average ½ cup serving of beans delivers seven grams of fiber which is a great head start toward the minimum daily fiber target of 30-35 grams. Consuming adequate dietary fiber has many known health benefits:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Enhanced intestinal health
  • Weight control — while whole foods and processed foods may contain the same number of calories, due to the presence of fiber and resistant starch we absorb fewer calories from whole foods.
  • Improvements in diabetes and prediabetes
  • A recent study showed that study participants who added seven additional grams of fiber to their diet showed a significant reduction of heart disease risk. People who avoid eating beans/legumes may be at four times the risk of developing high blood pressure.

Glycemic Index and the “Second Meal Effect”

The prevalence of Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes (metabolic syndrome) is growing at alarming rates among the world populations consuming typical SAD-type diets. Due to low fiber dietary choices including meat, eggs and dairy, processed foods and sugary beverages, it is common for blood sugar levels after a meal to spike and remain elevated. This is a danger for people who want to control and prevent diabetes.

Beans have a very low glycemic index compared to grains, cereals, breads, pasta and root veggies. If you want to eat a high glycemic food like white rice, be sure to eat plenty of high fiber beans with it to keep the glycemic index low. Beans are shown to lower blood sugar, even the next day or the next meal. “The second meal effect” is an anomaly where the glycemic index of one meal influences the glycemic response to a subsequent meal. There is growing evidence that this can also aid weight loss.

Why Heart Rate is Important

A healthy resting heart rate should be around one beat per second or less. A faster resting heart rate is associated with shorter life expectancy. Eating one cup per day of beans, chickpeas or lentils for three months may slow resting heart rate as much as exercising for 250 hours on a treadmill.


The amino acid methionine is essential and we must obtain it from our diet. However, in excess methionine is a pro-oxidant and cancer-feeding amino acid. There are studies that show that diets lower in methionine are healthier, including significant evidence from the “blue zones” around the world where people live longer and healthier lives. Beans and other plant foods are much lower in methionine than eggs, fish, beef, pork, game and dairy.


Beans contain much more of the essential amino acid L-Lysine that any other plant food. It has many roles including helping the body absorb more calcium for bone health and prevents the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which may help prevent Type 2 diabetes complications. There is evidence that Lysine may reduce anxiety and depression and stress responses, such as diarrhea.

A Bargain!

One pound of dry beans will cook provide about ten servings, for an average cost per ½ cup serving of less than 40 cents.  If canned beans are more convenient they are just as good nutritionally. Opt for no/low sodium options. A portion of hummus is ¼ cup; just check the label for sodium and fat content since some brands are loaded with both. Instead of dipping bread into the hummus choose celery, cucumber, zucchini and/or other fresh raw veggies to maximize nutrition and fiber intake. Yum!

Chickpeas/garbanzos, black beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, peas, mung beans, fava beans, pinto beans, white beans, kidney beans, split peas, lima beans, adzuki beans and navy beans are the best known varieties but there are also many heirloom bean varieties available. Sprouted beans, such as lentils and mung beans, deliver more nutritional benefits than cooked. Never eat uncooked/sprouted kidney beans — they are poisonous. Peanuts are technically legumes, but due to their nutritional profile and high fat content they better fit into the “nuts” category.

Protein Combining Myth

The 1975 book “Diet for a Small Planet” originally taught that beans needed to be combined with rice, corn or other grains in order to obtain all of the essential amino acids. This has since been proven to be untrue. The body maintains a pool of free amino acids designed to be made available when needed. What’s important is getting adequate calories from whole food plant sources in order to obtain enough protein.

The Downside and Solutions

Everyone knows about the potentially uncomfortable and embarrassing digestive effect of eating beans and legumes. Fortunately, this one may be simple to solve. Beans contain *resistant starch (indigestible oligosaccharides) that may initially be difficult to digest and which intestinal bacteria can cause to ferment, producing gas. There is evidence, however, that diets high in resistant starch offer tremendous benefits to our microbiome. If eating beans is uncomfortable for you here are some suggestions:

  • By starting with small portions, the digestive system and gut flora will adjust to bean consumption after a week or so of regular consumption.
  • Soak dried beans in cold water plus 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda for eight hours. Pour off the soaking water and rinse well before cooking.
  • Cooking your beans/legumes with spices such as ginger, turmeric or fennel will help while adding delicious and complex flavors to your meal.
  • Use a digestive aid like Beano that contains an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase. This should be your last resort because it converts the hard to digest starches into simple sugars that are readily absorbed. The “second meal effect” may be minimized under these circumstances.

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*Your body’s reaction to increased amounts of fiber from beans will tell you a lot about the health of your gut. People with good gut function usually respond positively, while people with compromised guts will notice discomfort, bloating, cramping, gas, diarrhea, constipation or headaches, etc. These symptoms tell you that your gut needs help and is not the fault of the beans. If you experience problems from beans add a probiotic supplement.