While life expectancies have never been higher so too are rates of chronic diseases, resulting in large number of people living for many years with disease. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancers are so common today that many may think these are inevitable. This could not be further from the truth. There is a multitude of dietary and lifestyle choices or “weapons of risk reduction” which individuals can adopt to add years to life and life to years. Legumes, an often forgotten food group, have huge potential as a weapon of risk reduction to fight off disease in the long term.
Lessons from the longest lived
In recent decades researchers have studied the longest lived communities around the world where a fraction of people suffer the diet and lifestyle related diseases which plaque many countries today. These unique regions around the world, known as “Blue Zones
”, provide an insight into potential guidelines to achieve and maintain health as well as happiness over the lifespan.(1)
“Blue Zones” include the Mediterranean regions of Sardinia in Italy and Icaria in Greece, as well as the islands of Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. From studying these populations, researchers have identified universal themes fundamental to health and happiness. When it comes to diet, an overriding theme from these Blue Zones is an emphasis on legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas within a mostly plant-based diet.
When it comes to legumes, the traditional Sardinian diet is particularly high in fava beans, the Icarian’s enjoy a diet rich in chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils, the Okinawan people and seventh day Adventists of Loma Linda have high intakes of soy from beans, tofu and soy milk, whereas the people of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica eat a variety of beans with rice as a staple in their diet.
This is not to say that legumes are the only foods contributing to health in these diets, which are also rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. However, the prominence of legumes in these populations is worthy of remark as legumes are a largely forgotten food group in Australia, with only 7% of us reporting to eat them in the latest National Nutrition Survey.(2)
In addition to learnings from the Blue Zones, the scientific evidence from populations all around the world (not just Blue Zones) consistently demonstrates that people who eat higher intake of legumes have better health outcomes including a significantly reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, and improved blood glucose control.(4)
The potential of legumes
The benefits of diets that emphasise legumes are not surprising given their nutrient density – in fact in a recent analysis of the Australian Health Survey, people who ate legumes had higher total daily intakes of fibre (30.4 g vs 21.9g), protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, iodine and folate compared with non-consumers.(5) In addition to essential nutrients, legumes are also rich in protective phytonutrients which are likely to also contribute to the associated health benefits observed in long term consumers.
When it comes to Australian diets, the most recent National Nutrition Survey found that the majority of Australians (92.1% or almost 20 million people) did not eat legumes on either day of the survey.
So why don’t more people enjoy legumes? GLNC’s 2014 Grains and Legumes Consumption and Attitudinal Study found that the biggest barrier to legume consumption was simply that Australians do not think to include them in their diet or the meals they prepare.(2) As legumes are widely accessible and affordable there is lots of potential for Australians to improve their diet quality and reduce risk of disease in the long term by taking the simple step of enjoying legumes more often.
Starting this healthy habit
A good starting goal for those who don’t eat legumes regularly is to aim to eat a variety of legumes at least 2-3 times each week as part a balanced diet. This can easily be achieved by adding chickpeas or beans to your salads, choosing soy milk more often, enjoying hummus dip as a snack or simply adding a can of drained and rinsed canned beans/lentils to your favourite recipe (i.e. spaghetti with red lentils
1. Blue Zones [cited 2015 March ]. Available from: http://www.bluezones.com/.
2. GLNC. 2014 Australian Grains and Legumes Consumption and Attitudinal Report. Unpublished: 2014.
3. NHMRC. Australian Dietary Guidelines: Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets 2013 [cited 2015 January]. Available from: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/n55.
4. Fardet A, Boirie Y. Associations between food and beverage groups and major diet-related chronic diseases: an exhaustive review of pooled/meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Nutrition reviews. 2014:n/a-n/a.
5. GLNC. Secondary Analysis of the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey 2011-2012 Unpublished: 2014.