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No matter where you live, what country you’re from, or what your economic status is, legumes most likely a play a significant role in your family’s daily diet. And no wonder—legumes are abundant, easy to find, economical, and, most importantly, very healthy. What’s not so well known is what the term “legume” actually refers to. Let’s take a closer look at this huge family of foods.
What Are Legumes?
Legumes are the fruits or seeds of a family of plants called Fabaceae (also known as Leguminoseae), which consists of about 18,000 species. Legumes often come inside of a pod that splits in half once they’re ready to harvest. We typically eat only the seed portion of the legume, although the pod also can be consumed. For example, a green pea is the seed, but its pod can be either eaten or removed.
Records show that legumes were cultivated in ancient Egypt and Asia and they became one of the first domesticated plants in the New World as far back as 6,000 B.C. Now, they can be found in most areas of the world, and they’re an important source of food for both humans and livestock. According to Encyclopedia.com, they rank second only to the grass family (wheat, corn, rice, etc.) in terms of agricultural significance.
Types of Legumes
Legumes are placed into two main classifications: grain and forage. Forage legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, are mostly consumed by livestock. You’re probably much more familiar with the type humans eat: grain legumes. Examples of grain legumes:
- Beans (chickpeas, fava, kidney)
- Peas (green, yellow, pigeon, cowpea)
- Lentils (red, green, yellow, black)
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PULSES AND LEGUMES?
You may have heard certain members of the legume family being referred to as “pulses,” but what does that mean, exactly? Well, according to pulses.org, the term refers only to the dry, edible seed within a legume pod. Therefore, dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas, and lentils are considered pulses, while peanuts, soybeans, fresh peas, and fresh beans are not.
6 Health Benefits of Legumes
#1. They’re an excellent source of plant-based protein. One fact that makes legumes unique is that they’re the only plants with the ability to obtain nitrogen from the atmosphere, which makes them a rich source of protein. Once a legume plant dies, the nitrogen is returned to the soil, which helps other plants thrive. (This process is known as “green manuring.”) Unlike most animal-based protein sources, legumes can help lower your risk of high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Legumes are also more economical and shelf stable than many animal-based proteins. Edamame, lentils, white beans, and cranberry beans are among the legumes with the highest amounts of protein. For more information, check out High-Protein Foods: Lower Your Disease Risk with Plant-Based Protein.
#2. Legumes are loaded with fiber for your digestive system. Not only does a high-fiber diet prevent constipation and promote healthy bowel movements, it also helps lower your blood pressure and cholesterol as well as reduce inflammation. Legumes are one of your best bets when looking to bulk up your fiber content. Navy, adzuki, kidney, pinto, and black beans contain between 16 and 18 grams of fiber per serving, according to the USDA. For more on the importance of fiber in our diet, check out Why is Fiber Important? Lower Cholesterol, Prevent Disease, and Live Longer by Eating More Fiber.
#3. They can aid your weight-loss goals. Because legumes have the all-star combination of protein and fiber, you’ll stay fuller longer, which can help you reach your weight-loss goals. Also, beans have a low glycemic index, which means that they release energy slower than other foods and won’t cause your blood sugar to spike and make you feel hungry. For more information, check out Most Filling Foods: How to Satisfy Those Hunger Pangs.
HOW TO SOAK AND COOK DRIED LEGUMES
Dried beans are cheaper than canned ones, but does soaking them seem a little intimidating? Here are some tips to help:
- If you don’t need them right away, you can leave your beans to soak in water overnight and they’ll be ready the next day. Most dried legumes will need at least 8 to 10 hours to soak.
- If you’re in a bit of a hurry, bring your beans to a boil in water for one minute and then let them sit in the water for about one hour.
- Once your legumes have doubled in size, prepare as desired.
- While cooking soaked beans in fresh water reduces gas and bloating, it also reduces the amount of nutrients in the legumes.
- Be careful with kidney beans. If you want to use your slow cooker to prepare your legumes, kidney beans still have to be boiled on your stove for 10 minutes before adding them to the slow cooker in order to neutralize a toxin called phytohemagglutinin, which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea.
4. Legumes are good for your heart. Although we think of peanuts as a member of the nut family, they’re actually classified as legumes, which are a good source of heart-healthy antioxidants. Peanuts are rich in vitamin E, while beans are rich in flavanoids, which can help reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol. For more information, check out The Best Diet for Your Heart and Arteries: 4 Simple Strategies.
#5. They’re a great choice for diabetics. As mentioned earlier, legumes have a low glycemic index, which is particularly beneficial to diabetics who need to keep their blood sugar stable. A recent study also found that legumes can significantly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to their high levels of vitamin B, fiber, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
#6. Legumes contain important vitamins and minerals. Believe it or not, we aren’t finished mentioning all of the health benefits of legumes—they’re an excellent source of folate, iron, manganese, and phosphorus, too. This is especially good news for vegetarians and vegans, who may be missing out on important vitamins and minerals by omitting meat, poultry, and seafood from their diet.
The Many Ways to Eat Legumes
Not only are legumes healthy and economical, they’re also versatile. You can buy them canned, dried, or frozen, serve them cold or hot, and enjoy them as a side or main dish—and even as a dessert.
Below are some tips and ideas for incorporating legumes into your diet:
- Choose dried instead of frozen legumes if you’re watching your sodium intake. But if you happen to have only canned legumes, rinse them before consuming (or choose a “no salt added” variety when you’re shopping).
- Add legumes to your favorite recipes. They’re great mixed into soups, stews, rice, and casseroles.
- Make legumes a part of your afternoon snack. Boiled and lightly salted edamame can be a satisfying replacement for chips or other junk foods. And hummus, which is made from pureed chickpeas, is a healthy alternative dip for carrots, celery, and pita chips.
- Serve them on Meatless Mondays. Black bean burgers, bean chili, and falafel are great meals to serve your family if you’re looking to cut back on meat.
- Sprinkle them on top of a salad. Skip the croutons and extra cheese and reach for kidney beans instead.
- Make legumes a little more kid-friendly. Serve black beans inside of tacos, on top of nachos, or even baked inside of a batch of chocolate brownies. (We won’t tell!)
GLUTEN-FREE MEDITERRANEAN BEAN, QUINOA & KALE STEW
MAKES 6 SERVINGS.
1 tablespoon canola oil or grapeseed oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, caps cut into quarters
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried thyme
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes, optional
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 cup white wine
4 cups gluten-free low-sodium vegetable broth
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
½cup uncooked quinoa
1 (14-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
5 cups torn curly or Tuscan kale leaves
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup chopped parsley, for garnish
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and salt and heat 6 minutes or until onion is soft and darkened. Add mushrooms, celery, carrots and garlic to pan and cook 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, dried thyme, chili flakes (if using) and black pepper and heat 30 seconds.
- Place wine in pan, increase heat to medium-high and simmer 2 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes and quinoa to pan. Return to a boil, lower heat to low and simmer covered 15 minutes or until quinoa is tender. Stir in beans, kale and red vinegar and heat 1 minute.
- Ladle soup into serving bowls, garnish with parsley and serve.
Each serving contains 287 calories, 4g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 320mg sodium, 47g carbohydrate, 9g fiber, 8g sugars, 12g protein, 18Est GL.
Courtesy of Gluten Free & More
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.