By Lisa Kaschmitter, Nutritionist
Legumes are a family of nutritious vegetables, which consists of beans, peas, nuts, and lentils. They are known for being incredibly nutrient dense, and most contain no cholesterol. They also boast high levels of potassium, iron, magnesium and folate.1 Legumes are important for any diet but have found a place of increasing importance in diets that include little-to-no meat consumption. Not only are they key to maintaining a protein-rich balance for people who do not eat meat, but they can also add a source of fat-free protein to the diets of those who do consume meat regularly.1
Many people attest to eating beans once in awhile. Whether it is in the form of a soup or a side dish, beans make their way onto our plates only a few times a year. There may be a reason for this, as we all know the song about beans and how it ends. In case you don’t remember it, it goes like this:
“Beans, beans, the magical fruit,
The more you eat, the more you toot,
The more you toot, the better you feel,
So let’s have beans for every meal!”
As a kid anytime beans were on the plate, this song could be heard. Surprisingly there is a lot of truth to it. Beans have amazing (some might say “magical”) health benefits, but they have also gained a reputation for causing gas. The latter part has caused many people to leave beans out of their diets on a regular basis. Unfortunately for those, this means they are also losing out on a great source of protein, fiber, and nutrients.
Beans give you gas because they contain the sugar molecule called oligosaccharides. We have difficulty digesting this molecule, and it begins to ferment in our intestines. Although this may sound like a bad thing, in truth this process helps to build up good bacteria in our guts.2 There have also been studies showing that if beans are consumed regularly this gaseous effect will minimize over time as our bodies adjust to oligosaccharides.2
One of the many highlights of the bean family is the soybean. Vegetarian diets have been utilizing this bean for years adding nutrition to their diets, however, those who have meat as a central part of their diet rarely consume it. Research conducted in countries that utilize soybeans regularly, such as China and Japan, were shown to have very healthy bones and very low incidences of osteoporosis, despite consuming relatively low levels of calcium.3 Soy also plays a role in preventing coronary heart disease and 25 grams of soy protein per day helps to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol levels.3 Also, because soy carbohydrates break down at a slow rate, they do not spike blood sugar the way other carbohydrates do.3
Snow peas, snap peas, peas in a pod, whether you enjoy them raw, steamed, or part of a yummy dinner, the addition of peas boosts the nutrition of any meal. Adding one cup of chopped raw peas in the pod to a meal adds just 41 calories, but you also get 2.5 grams of fiber, 2.7 grams of protein, 42 milligrams of calcium, and 196 milligrams of potassium!4
Nuts are a great go-to snack food to add more protein to your diet. The main concern with many grab-and-go nut mixes is that the negative health effects of the amount of salt that is added to them can reduce the benefits. For example, one ounce of salted peanuts there is 230 milligrams of sodium, compared with 5 milligrams for the same size portion of sodium in unsalted peanuts.4 An ounce of peanuts also includes 2.4 grams of fiber, 7.3 grams of protein, 26 milligrams of calcium, and 200 milligrams of potassium.4 As long as you make sure you buy unsalted versions, nuts are a nearly perfect snack!
Lentils can be made into delicious soups, side dishes, or an all time favorite, curry! Lentils make any meal seem hearty! They are inexpensive and relatively easy to cook, just rinse and simmer. They come in four different categories including red, brown, green, and specialty.5 Personally red lentils have always been a favorite because they make for a great presentation and they have 7 grams of fiber, 11 grams of protein, 40 milligrams of calcium, and 260 milligrams of potassium, per ¼ cup dry lentil serving.4
If you are looking to lower fat in your diet, while maintaining protein and nutrient density, legumes are sure to be a wise addition to your diet. They come in so many different varieties, that you can eat them multiple times a day and not get bored of them. This family of vegetables may be the most diverse and versatile part of the vegetable food group and for this deserves to grace our plates regularly.
- Beans and other legumes: Cooking tips. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mayo Clinic. 4 July 2014. Web. 29 November 2015.
- Beans and Gas: Clearing the air. Michael Greger. Nutrition Facts. 5 December 2011. Web. 29 November 2015.
- Soy and other legume nutrition towards vegetarianism. Daily Mirror. Daily Mirror. 7 November 2013. Web. 29 November 2015.
- CalorieKing Site. Calorie King. 2015. Web. 29 November 2015.
- A Comprehensive Guide to Lentils. Kiersten Frase. Oh My Veggies. 16 July 2013. Web. 29 November 2015.