Beans, chickpeas, lentils and split peas

The humble legume is packed with goodness, yet often overlooked. Legumes are plant-based foods and include beans (such as baked beans), chickpeas, lentils and split peas. They are high in fibre, a source of protein and full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. In fact legumes help nourish our body with B vitamins, iron (non-heme), phosphorous, zinc, calcium, magnesium and folate.

While legumes are a good source of protein they are also rich in carbohydrate. This means eating legumes will impact on our blood glucose levels (BGLs). The type of carbohydrate found in legumes is often good quality, high in fibre and low glycaemic index (GI). This means that they are broken down slowly, our BGLs tend not to get too high and they keep us fuller for longer. Remember portion size is still important.

A recent study has also suggested a link between legume intake and improvements in cardiovascular risk. This study found eating legumes as part of a healthy diet could reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol by about five percent. Although more research is needed the benefits could be due to the soluble fibre found in legumes.

Soluble fibre is thought to help improve BGLs and lower LDL cholesterol levels by slowing digestion. Other sources of soluble fibre include fruits and vegetables, oats and barley.

While we know legumes are good for us, the average intake in the Western diet is only about 0.2 serves per day. Knowing how to prepare legumes may help improve confidence when it comes to eating beans, chickpeas and lentils. Legumes soak up flavour in a dish and are the perfect accompaniment for many winter dishes. If using dried legumes pre-soak them in water, this will mean they cook much faster. If using canned legumes e.g. 4 bean mix, try choosing salt-reduced varieties and rinsing them in water before cooking.

Legumes are generally cheaper when compared to meat options. Replacing a portion of your meat with legumes can help save money, bulk up your meal and increase your fibre intake.

To add legumes as part of a healthy diet try these tips:

  • Add chickpeas to a stir-fry or salad
  • Veggie sticks with hummus (made from chickpeas) as a healthy snack
  • Throw lentils or beans into a soup, casserole or bolognaise
  • Have a tin of salt-reduced baked beans as a snack – add herbs, spices or chilli for extra flavour
  • Try making a healthy burrito with kidney beans and extra salad

If you are increasing your intake of legumes or fibre in general remember to do it gradually. Introducing too much and too fast can result in gastro-intestinal side effects. Also ensure you are including plenty of water or other hydrating fluids.

Written by:

Sievenpiper J. L Et al. Effect of dietary pulse intake on established therapeutic lipid targets for cardiovascular risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. CMAJ, May 2014, 168(8)