Legumes are an affordable and nutritious way to add plant-based protein to your diet.
Healthy food sometimes seems prohibitively expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. Case in point: legumes, the family of foods that encompasses beans, peas, and lentils, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While legumes are a nutritional powerhouse, that’s not all they have going for them — they’re also inexpensive, easy to find in stores, and versatile enough to work in a wide variety of dishes.
“They provide nourishment in a form that is inexpensive, highly storable, and delicious,” says Laura Poe, RDN, who is in private practice in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “They’re an affordable way to ‘stretch’ a meal, adding nutrition and bulk for very little cost.”
Legumes in their many forms should definitely be on your radar if you’re trying to cut down on your meat intake. Beans and lentils are staples in plant-based diets thanks to their nutritional profile. “[Legumes] can make a superb high-protein substitute for meat in almost every dish,” says Shannon Henry, RDN, a registered dietitian with EZCareClinic in San Francisco. “Their refined and cooked texture means that they can fit perfectly into balls and patties. You can also use them in soups, casseroles, burgers, chili, and tacos.”
What Are Legumes?
Legumes belong to the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family. According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the terms “legumes,” “pulses,” and “beans” are sometimes used interchangeably, but legumes technically refer to the entire plant (including the leaves, stems, and pods) while a pulse is the edible seed (such as beans, peas, or lentils).
Examples of legumes include:
- Adzuki beans (aka red beans)
- Anasazi beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Fava beans
- Garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas)
- Soy nuts
Peanuts are also technically a legume, according to Food Insight.
Legumes are a staple food in Mediterranean diets. People who live in Mediterranean countries consumed between 8 and 23 grams (g) of legumes per day, while Northern Europeans consumed less than 5 g a day, according to one study.
What Are the Health Benefits of Legumes?
Legumes in their various forms have been shown to have the following benefits.
Provide Key Nutrients
Legumes are surprisingly nutritious, Henry says. They contain protein, fiber, B vitamins, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc, according to MedlinePlus.
They’re also low in fat and calories. According to past estimates, a half-cup serving of legumes contains about 115 calories, 1 g fat, 20 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, and 7 to 9 g fiber.
“Legumes are among the highest-fiber sources of carbohydrates, giving them a lower glycemic index than other carb sources and helping with blood sugar control,” Poe says.
“Beans and [other] legumes [contain] antioxidants that help prevent cell damage and [premature] risks,” Henry says. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, antioxidants can prevent or delay cellular damage, and people who eat an antioxidant-rich diet have a lower risk of several diseases — including cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.
Promote a Healthy Heart
It’s a good idea to limit your intake of red meat (like beef, lamb, and pork) because of the saturated fat content, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Lentils and beans are great substitutes — not only to help you reduce your meat intake, but to tap into some heart-healthy benefits. According to past research, eating legumes can lower blood pressure and inflammation, which are two risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
May Lower the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Legumes may also aid in preventing and managing serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and related conditions such as hypertension and high cholesterol, according to past research.
A study published in March 2017 in Clinical Nutrition found that regular consumption of legumes — especially lentils — as part of a Mediterranean diet led to a 35 percent lower risk of diabetes among older adults with a high cardiovascular risk. Those researchers found that substituting legumes for half a serving a day of eggs, bread, rice, and baked potato also helped lower type 2 diabetes risk.
Offer a Plant-Based Protein
Legumes are a great meat-free protein source and can take the place of meat in many recipes, Henry says. Following a predominantly plant-based diet — such as a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet, or a flexitarian diet — over a meat-heavy one may help lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and many cancers, according to the AHA.
Plant-based diets were also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association inAugust 2019.
Are Legumes Good for Weight Loss?
Poe says legumes can be beneficial for weight loss since they’re low in calories, high in fiber, and offer satiating protein. “They can help us feel fuller for longer and avoid snacking between meals,” she says.A May 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that more weight was lost among participants who followed diets that contained about one serving of pulses per day than in a control group with no additional pulses. The review also suggested that dietary pulse consumption may be linked with lower body fat.
How to Buy and Prepare Legumes
You’ll find legumes readily stocked on shelves at most grocery stores. They’ll typically be canned, dried, or in jars, according to MedlinePlus.
Most dried beans and legumes (except for black-eyed peas and lentils) will need to be soaked before you cook and eat them, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sift through them before soaking and remove any debris or discolored beans. Rinse well, then cover 1 pound of beans or legumes with 10 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let soak for up to four hours. Or, for a slow soak, skip the boiling step and place the covered pot in the refrigerator for a minimum of four hours (or overnight).Tight on time? Canned beans are a quick and convenient option. Henry says dried and canned beans have similar nutritional profiles, but cautions that canned beans tend to be high in sodium. Give them a good rinse before serving or cooking to remove some of the sodium that’s added during processing, advises the Mayo Clinic.
Legumes lend themselves to soups, tacos, burritos, and chili, though you can also eat them on their own, according to MedlinePlus.
Toss them on top of salads, puree them into a bean dip, or use them as a meat substitute in burgers, stews, and soups.
6 Legume Recipes to Try
Legumes are incredibly versatile. Here are six recipes to inspire you.
- Satisfy your soup fix with hearty Best Lentil Soup.
- Spice up snack time with Crispy Parmesan Garlic Edamame.
- Whip up Quick Pasta and Chickpeas on a busy weeknight.
- Add Lentil Salad to your go-to salads lineup.
- Skip the chicken salad and try this meat-free Easy Chickpea Salad Sandwich instead.
- Need some meatless Monday inspiration? Grill up some satisfying black bean burgers.
Side Effects of Legumes
Legumes are notorious for causing stomach trouble. “Some people who have digestive issues may not tolerate legumes well, as they may cause gas, bloating, or other symptoms of indigestion,” Poe says.Legumes’ effect on your stomach may be due to their fiber content. If your diet is lacking in fiber and you suddenly start eating high amounts, you may well feel gassier than usual. But everything should go back to normal once your body adjusts to the increased fiber intake, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
You can also add legumes to your diet gradually — start with 2 to 4 tablespoons (tbsp) of beans or lentils at a time, then increase your intake as your body adjusts. Drink plenty of water to offset legumes’ effects on your stomach, too.Legumes also contain lectins, which when eaten raw can lead to symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, and gas, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Lectins are an “anti-nutrient,” and some say they cause obesity, chronic inflammation, and autoimmune diseases.
Henry says not to worry too much, however, as these negative effects are canceled after cooking. “When we cook legumes at high temperature, it will eliminate lectin activity from legumes which make them safe to eat,” she says.In the meantime, there are some things you can do to reduce the stomach trouble after a legume-based meal. The Mayo Clinic suggests:
- Choose easier-to-digest canned beans over dried ones.
- Take a digestive aid, like Beano, before eating legumes.
- If you’re soaking dried beans, change the water a few times to get rid of the gas-producing carbohydrates that dissolve into the water.
- If you’re cooking the beans, simmer until tender to make them easier to digest.
- Drink plenty of water to help your body adjust to the increased fiber.
Poe also suggests starting your legume journey with lentils. “Some people find lentils easier to digest than other starchier legumes, like black beans or chickpeas, so start with lentils if other legumes cause too much digestive distress,” she says.
A Final Word on Legumes
Whether you’re following a plant-based diet or not, it’s worth making sure legumes have a place in your meals. They’re incredibly versatile, inexpensive, nutritious, and make a great substitute for meat. From lentils to peas to beans, you’re bound to find several you like.
If you’re concerned about excessive gas and stomach trouble, choose canned beans, try a digestive aid, and add legumes to your diet gradually to give your body time to adjust.