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Fork in the Road: Beans, beans the wonderful fruit…

Regularly consuming legumes like beans can add years to your lifespan, according to a new study out of Norway.

Turns out that nursery-school rhyme contains real wisdom for living longer

Beans, beans the wonderful fruit;

The more you eat, the more you toot;

The more you toot, the better you feel;

Beans, beans at every meal.

I know, I know. Some people say “Beans, beans the musical fruit…” especially after Bart sang that version of the classic nursery-school rhyme on The Simpsons. And sometimes the ending is different. Either way, the version above is the one I grew up with in Alberta, where kids from nine to 90 loved to fart around about farts.

But how about this? Those wonderful beans, and other legumes, along with lots of veggies, no meat, little booze, and long periods of eating nothing at all, could be your ticket for literally adding years to your life expectancy. Just what you needed to shore up those slip-sliding New Year’s resolutions, right?

A huge study done by the University of Bergen, Norway that was based on more than a human lifespan of research into the body’s aging process really opened my eyes when I read about it recently in Britain’s top science magazine, New Scientist. It showed that life expectancy can be increased by 10 or more years, simply by following a new diet based on different choices—ones that increase metabolic health and reduce your chances of illness, mainly cardiovascular diseases.

Basically, you move away from a typical Western diet—where the average daily caloric intake from 1970 to 2009 increased by about 20 per cent—especially by cutting out red and processed meats, dairy products, sugary drinks and refined grains, and move to one with more beans and other legumes, like lentils and chickpeas, along with whole grains, fish, fruit, veggies and a handful of nuts.

The biggest gains, for both men and women, were had by eating more legumes (those beans!), more whole grains and nuts, and less red and processed meat.

Similar studies have been done, but this Norwegian one stands out for its extensive reach, practicality and solid conclusions. While 20-year-olds could see extensions of up to 13 years by following the longevity diet, even people aged 60 could increase their life expectancy by eight years. There’s also a modified version—the “feasibility approach” diet—which people might be more likely to stick to.

To make things easy, the U of Bergen team has created an online calculator called Food4HealthyLife. You can quickly personalize it to learn how dietary changes will impact your longevity. (Note that you should never decrease your caloric intake to the point where it damages your health, and always work with your doctor when changing your diet.)

You can also find lots of solid scientific evidence out there that supports consuming fewer calories overall to extend life expectancy, such as CALERIE (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy), and things like periodic fasting or fasting-mimicking diets, all aimed at good health and living longer.

Know your limit, stay within it 

Your body mass index, or BMI, is a simple ratio that uses your weight and height to provide an estimate of body fat. It’s calculated using your weight divided by your height, squared.

You likely know your height. As for your weight, which often varies, especially this time of year, the best way to weigh yourself is naked as a jaybird. Sometimes that’s tough to do, though, so my doctor says subtract five pounds, or 2.25 kg., when you’re fully clothed, shoes on. A pair of shoes averages two pounds, or a kilo, and our clothing comes in around two-plus pounds, or 1 to 1.5 kilos. (Maybe that’s why we feel so free in the tropics—we don’t have to lug all that extra weight around.)

Next, check out your BMI. Diabetes Canada offers a good online calculator. Then go to Health Canada’s website where you’ll find a BMI nomogram—a diagram representing the relations between three or more variable quantities by a number of scales—to learn your risk for developing health problems.

Whatever references you use, it’s never “one size fits all.” Pregnant or lactating women need to use appropriate calculators (there’s one on the Health Canada site). And some good sites accommodate various ethnic origins.

You also need to allow for age. On the young end, Health Canada’s nomogram doesn’t apply to anyone under 18. Like in my teens, I was the same height I am now—healthy, but skinny as a beanpole. At 98 pounds, though, I would have been “severely underweight” as an adult—and “very unhealthy.”

At the other end of the age scale, Health Canada says that for anyone 65 and over, the normal range for a BMI can start slightly above that shown (18.8), and extend into the overweight range, which starts at 25. In short, when you cross a certain age threshold, you can still be healthy with “a little extra padding” as just about anyone I know over a certain age likes to say.

Once you know your normal BMI limit, stay within it. Remember—restricting calories has been shown to extend the health span and lifespan of every organism studied, from yeast to monkeys.

For instance, New Scientist reports that when calories are restricted for mice they can live up to 50 per cent longer than average. Mind you, it was a huge restriction (60 per cent)—something most people would have a hard time doing for any length of time, plus the mouse diet had to be supplemented with lots of nutrients.

Still, if we could replicate that increase in humans, we’d see a lifespan of about 120 years—something that sounds pretty darn good to a lot of people, especially those of a certain age.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who would love to live 300 years.