This Cheap and Simple Superfood Can Add Years to Your Life

Rethink your protein priorities—try this easy replacement for artery-clogging red meat.

Medically reviewed in January 2021

You might’ve heard the news: Veggie lovers are living longer, healthier lives—while carnivores may be upping their odds of serious illnesses like heart disease and colon cancer.

In fact, the “plant slant,” or the practice of eating mostly plant-based dishes, is one of the core health principles followed by those living in Blue Zones. Blue Zones are regions such as Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, where people:

  • Live to 100 at higher rates than anywhere else on earth
  • Enjoy the greatest number of healthy, disability-free years
  • Eat less than five servings of meat per month on average

But just because you know that a mostly veggie-based diet can lengthen your life, doesn’t mean you necessarily opt for greens at the end of a long day—especially when greasy red meat dishes seem so satisfying.

That’s why the world’s longest living people love legumes, the food group that includes beans, chickpeas and lentils. This filling, protein-rich food group can make it easy to pass on meat dishes. We spoke with Jessica Bocquin, RD, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas, to learn how legumes can help reinvent your diet and add years to your life.

What are legumes?
Legumes are a type of vegetable whose seed grows inside of a pod. Legumes come in countless colors, textures and flavors, each offering unique health benefits. In fact, there are over 18,000 choices, including:

  • Soy nuts
  • Black beans
  • Edamame
  • Butter beans
  • Snap peas

Despite this rich variety, only 8 percent of Americans eat legumes on any given day, while the average US citizen eats over 55 pounds of beef and 106 pounds of red meat overall per year. Like meat, legumes can fill you up and add protein to your plate. But, unlike meat, they contain zero cholesterol and little to no saturated fat, explains Bocquin.

Remarkable health benefits of legumes
“Not only are legumes cholesterol-free, they’re also high in vitamins and minerals such as folate, potassium, iron and magnesium,” says Bocquin. “And while they’re lower in fat, the fats that they do contain are heart-healthy unsaturated fats. They're also high in fiber, which supports healthy digestion and helps to lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol.”

Most legumes are either a complete protein on their own, or they form a complete protein when paired with certain foods like whole grains. A complete protein is a food that contains all of the essential amino acids, or building blocks of protein, that your body can’t make on its own. There are twenty-one amino acids, nine of which you need to get from food. Amino acids are essential for almost every one of your body’s functions.

“Many legumes should be paired with another food such as a grain, nut or seed, to offer a wider range of essential amino acids,” says Bocquin. These pairings often make a naturally delicious dish. A few examples ideal protein pairs are:

  • Rice and beans
  • Hummus and whole grain pita
  • Peanut butter and whole grain bread

“Within the legume family, soy protein is just one example of a complete protein. That includes soybeans and foods that are made from soy like tofu and tempeh,” she adds.

How can adding more legumes to your diet help you live longer?
“Legumes can help you make a more satisfying meal with less fat, which promotes a healthy weight,” says Boquin. “Since people who are overweight are more likely to develop illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, a number of cancers and depression, eating a lean diet can help you avoid life-threatening illnesses. It also lets you reduce the amount of meat in your diet, which lowers your risk of heart disease.”

Eating a mostly plant-based diet is just one way to lower your RealAge score. To find out if you’re aging at a healthy rate—or if your body thinks it’s much older than it actually is—take Sharecare’s RealAge Test. The test will determine how well you’re aging and give tips on how to live the longest, healthiest life possible.

Simple ways to add legumes to your diet
Here are some quick-and-easy tips to help you eat more legumes:

  1. If you’re worried about bloating: Use dry beans, soak them overnight and then rinse them before cooking to help prevent gas and bloating. Just be sure to actually cook your beans in fresh, new water.
  2. If you’re craving a savory, superfood snack: “Hummus is even better when you make it on your own. It’s so easy—just garlic, garbanzo beans or chickpeas, tahini and some lemon juice. Add roasted red peppers or basil for optional extra flavor. Throw it in the food processor, dip some warm pita and you’ve got a filling, healthy snack,” recommends Bocquin.
  3. If you want a healthier version of taco night: Mix together low-sodium black beans, fresh salsa and low-fat cream cheese. Pour the mixture over brown rice for a complete protein or over lettuce for a hearty taco salad.
  4. If you make meat on taco night: Mix refried beans in with your taco meat, suggests Bocquin. That way, you’ll get more than one type of protein on your plate and you won’t need to take as much meat per serving.
  5. Bake with beans: Visit Doctor Oz’s Baking with Beans page for tips and recipes to upgrade your favorite desserts with a protein and antioxidant rich base.

Still not convinced that you need more beans in your life? They’re good for your wallet, as well as your health.

“Beans are very inexpensive when you compare them to other protein sources. A pound of dried pinto beans is around 80 cents on average, and that makes 12 servings. Meanwhile, a pound of ground beef costs about five to seven dollars,” says Bocquin. So if the health benefits of mostly plant-based eating haven’t swayed you, think about your budget.

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