HEALTH BENEFITS OF LEGUMES
It’s no secret that most of us depend far too much on processed foods and far too little on whole foods to fulfill daily energy needs. A diet that emphasizes nutrient-dense foods, or those that deliver a wide range of nutrients for relatively few calories, does more than provide energy- it nourishes your body and supports good health. Legumes are a low-fat, high-protein source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidant compounds and dietary fiber.
Types of Legumes
The legume class of vegetables is extremely broad, encompassing some 13,000 varieties of beans, peas and lentils. Legumes can be divided into two general categories: immature and mature varieties. Immature legumes, often referred to as “fresh” legumes, include all types of edible pod beans and peas and shell beans that haven’t yet been dried. Wax beans, snow peas, edamame and fresh lima beans are all immature legumes. Mature legumes are harvested from the pod in their fully developed, dried form. They’re commonly known as “dried” beans and peas. Black beans, kidney beans, lentils and split peas are all mature legumes. Nearly all legumes provide protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium, but mature legumes tend to be particularly rich sources.
As an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, protein and fiber, legumes are a highly satiating food. This means that for a relatively low amount of calories legumes make you feel fuller longer and, therefore, help prevent the hunger that can lead to unhealthy snacking and unwanted pounds. For about 115 calories, a 1/2-cup serving of cooked lentils provides about 9 grams of protein, 20 grams of mostly complex carbohydrates and less than half a gram of fat. It also supplies nearly 8 grams of fiber, or 31 percent of the recommended daily value. Most legumes contain significant amounts of insoluble and soluble fiber. Eating legumes several times a week promotes bowel regularity and helps keep blood sugar levels in check.
Legumes are sometimes called “poor people’s meat” because they’re an inexpensive source of quality plant protein. They truly are an ideal meat substitute, however, because the vitamin and mineral profiles of legumes and meat are comparable. Whereas meat is also a source of cholesterol and saturated fat, however, legumes are a cholesterol-free food that contains virtually no saturated fat. For just over 110 calories, a 1/2-cup serving of cooked black beans delivers 32 percent, 15 percent and 14 percent of the daily values for folate, magnesium and thiamine, respectively, and about 10 percent each of the daily values for iron and potassium. Opting for legumes instead of meat two or three times a week promotes healthy cholesterol levels and helps protect against heart disease.
Legumes and whole grains are considered complementary proteins, meaning that while neither contains all nine essential amino acids, they form a complete protein when consumed together, or at least in the same day. Soybeans are an exception, however, as they do provide a complete, high-quality protein. Many legumes, including fresh and dried varieties, also contain significant amounts of antioxidant compounds. As with fruits and vegetables, more colorful legumes tend to be higher in antioxidants. Small red kidney beans are actually a better source of antioxidants than fresh blueberries, according to the “Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.”
Beans and legumes are some of the most underrated foods on the planet. They are excellent sources of dietary fiber, protein, B vitamins and many other important vitamins and minerals. There is good evidence that they can help reduce blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels and help maintain a healthy gut. Not only that, but eating more beans and legumes as a source of protein instead of meat is also environmentally friendly.
Add them to soups, stews and salads, or just eat them on their own for a nutritious vegetarian meal. Toss cooked split peas with tomato sauce, sauteed kale and whole-grain pasta for a hearty, nutritious meal. Use whole-grain couscous, barley or bulgur to bring texture and flavor to a three-bean stew. Puree cooked lentils with roasted garlic and spread it on whole-grain toast.
- American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Superfoods
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Lentils, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Beans, Black, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt
- S. Food and Drug Administration: Calculate the Percent Daily Value for the Appropriate Nutrients
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