The team at the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC), Australia, provide the low-down on legumes, including why and how we should all be eating them more often!
Over the last few years, a wave of plant-based trends, coupled with the International Year of Pulses in 2016, has led to the humble pulse – more commonly known as legumes – increasingly being seen for the nutritional powerhouses that they truly are.
But what actually is a pulse?
Pulses belong to the wider legume family, which is a group of plants whose fruit or seed is enclosed in a pod. Pulses refer specifically to the dried, mature seeds of these plants and include dry peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. The term ‘legume’ includes these dry varieties, as well as fresh peas and beans.
This diverse group of staple foods has been cultivated by civilisations across the globe for over 10,000 years, but in recent times have been neglected. These days they are coming back into vogue, possibly because of their health benefits and the great texture and flavour they add to dishes.
Many people are most familiar with legumes in the form of the much-loved baked bean, but there are hundreds of different varieties of legume out there with some of the most familiar including chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans, such as butter beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans and soybeans.
Legumes and pulses come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours and can be eaten in many forms including whole, split, ground into flour, dried, canned, cooked or frozen.
Why are they so good for me?
Legumes are packed with a whole range of essential nutrients and are:
- Higher in protein than most other plant foods.
- Generally low in fat, and virtually free of saturated fats.
- Rich in energy-giving carbohydrates, with a low glycaemic index to help maintain blood glucose control.
- Contain B-group vitamins including folate, plus iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium.
- Abundant in fibre, including both insoluble and soluble fibre, plus resistant starch – all essential for maintaining good gut health!
- Gluten free, so suitable for people with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Many studies have shown that legumes offer significant health benefits including protection against chronic diseases, assisting with weight management and helping to maintain good gut health.
“Pulses belong to the wider legume family„
Live longer with legumes
Research over the past 20 years has confirmed that regularly eating pulses may actually extend our longevity by helping to prevent chronic disease, with a 7-8% reduction in risk of early death for every 20 gram increase in daily intake – that equates to adding a mere tablespoon or two of delicious legumes to your meals every day to help cut risk of early death.
The Blue Zone Project (a community well-being improvement initiative designed to change the way people experience the world around them) has also demonstrated the importance of legumes for longevity, with people in Blue Zones reaching the age of 100 at rates 10 times greater than average. Around 95% of their daily energy intake comes from plant foods, with legumes being eaten twice a week in place of meat in some regions and almost daily in other areas.
Legumes can help you manage your weight
Legumes have also been shown to help maintain weight, after a number of studies demonstrated that those who regularly ate beans had a lower body weight and smaller waist size compared to people who didn’t. This is partly down to legumes being rich in slowly digestible carbohydrates, fibre and protein, all of which may help to keep us feeling fuller for longer.
Legumes and chronic disease prevention
Some legumes boast specific benefits in addition to the above: soybeans for example are particularly high in phytoestrogens, with research over the last 20 years linking soy foods and phytoestrogens (a natural compound they contain) to a reduced risk of certain cancers including breast and prostate, heart disease, osteoporosis and problems associated with menopause. And for those with diabetes, legumes can play a role in regulating blood glucose levels.
Do legumes provide enough protein in a plant-based diet?
Legumes provide an economical source of plant-based protein. As more and more of us turn to an increasingly plant-based approach to eating, legumes and pulses become even more important as a valuable source of plant-based protein. Their versatility means that we can use beans, peas and lentils as direct substitutes for meat in vegetarian and vegan cooking – think black bean veggie burgers and lentil Bolognaise.
Although plant-based sources typically offer less protein than animal sources, it’s certainly possible to get enough protein from plants on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Enjoying a variety of legumes, combined with other plant-based protein foods like grains, provides a ‘complete’ source of protein, delivering the full set of amino acids needed for good health.
“Boost your legume intake by using hummus instead of mayonnaise in a sandwich„
How much should I be eating?
Pulses like chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans are full of nutrients, inexpensive and important for health and well-being. The Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) recommends aiming to eat 100 grams of pulses at least three times a week to maintain good health.
So how can I add more legumes into my diet?
Enjoying legumes as part of a healthy habit is easier than you might think as there are so many simple ways to boost your intake:
- Use hummus instead of mayonnaise in a sandwich.
- Substitute a mix of kidney beans and red lentils for half, or all, the mince in your next spaghetti bolognaise or chilli.
- Throw in a handful of black beans or lentils when cooking scrambled eggs.
- Try whizzing a handful of cannellini beans into a fruit smoothie.
- Use mashed cooked brown lentils in a nutty bliss ball mix.
TRY SOMETHING NEW WITH THESE LEGUMES…
Chickpeas offer a creamy texture and mild taste and make a great base for soaking up flavours.
Try something new with chickpeas: mix up your hummus with additions like sundried tomatoes, feta or cooked sweet potato or try the latest foodie trend, sweet hummus!
Black beans have a delicious meaty texture and make a great addition to burgers or as a mince substitute in chilli.
Try something new with black beans: use them to add a fudgy texture to black bean brownies.
Edamame are young soya beans and are regularly available in many UK supermarkets. They can be eaten as a tasty snack, sprinkled on salads and added to a variety of dishes including soups.
Try something new with edamame: Add a handful of edamame to a Greek salad to add extra flavour and nutrition.
With so many varieties to choose from, there are many reasons to love your legumes – their health benefits, versatility and abundance of nutrients being just a few. However you choose to eat them, know that whenever you do, you’re making a significant contribution to your health.
TOP TIPS FOR PREPPING YOUR LEGUMES
Cooking dried legumes (or pulses) in large batches is easy and cost effective. Simply freeze individual portions of cooked legumes for up to three months for ready-to-use convenience.
When using canned legumes, rinse contents thoroughly to reduce the salt content or simply buy those canned without salt and sugar.
Visit the GLNC website at https://www.glnc.org.au/ for more information on the nutrition benefits of legumes, handy tips and recipe inspiration.
References available upon request.
The Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) is a not-for-profit health promotion charity based in Australia. The Council is run by a small team – Accredited Practising Dietitians Dr Sara Grafenauer (centre) and Felicity Curtain (left) and Alexandra Locke (right), GLNC’s marketing and communications expert. GLNC is the independent authority on the nutrition and health benefits of grains and legumes.