Legumes (also known as pulses) include beans, lentils and dried peas (chickpeas, split peas). Beyond the classic black, pinto, or garbanzo beans, you can now buy an incredible variety of lentils (red, yellow, green, black, split or not) and even heirloom beans, with different colors, flavors and shape.
If you thought legumes were boring, think again. Just a virtual visit to the cuisines or India (dals and channa masala), Morocco (Harira), the Mediterranean (Italian Ribollita), Latin America (black bean soup or pozole) and Japan (soy beans) will start making your head spinning with new ideas on how to vary your intake of legumes. And these are just a few examples. One could write and entire book on the different ways you could cook these nutritional powerhouses. Indeed, let’s then talk about why they are so good for us.
The Benefits of Legumes
First of all, they are the cheapest way (for your wallet and for the earth) to get protein in your diet. But if you think that they are “poor people’s” food, I am going to tell you that they are also “lucky people’s” food. Yes, because, in addition to the protein, they contain slow-digesting carbohydrates, tons of fiber, and come packaged with minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium), vitamins (folic acid and other B vitamins) and phytochemicals. Here is what they can do for us:
1) Help with weight management and blood sugar regulation.Their high fiber content helps us feel full longer, and digest food slower. Even their carbohydrate portion is digested very slowly and helps improve blood glucose control and thus prevent (or control) diabetes.
2) Help with constipation: they contain insoluble fiber, which creates bulk and moves stool through the GI tract faster.
3) Help keep healthy cholesterol levels: they are one of the few foods high in soluble fiber, which binds cholesterol and helps excrete it (I wrote more on the subject in a previous article). They are also very low in saturated fat, and may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when they replace high-saturated fat foods like burgers or cheese.
4) Protect the body against disease as they contain antioxidants and other bioactive compounds. Although foods like blueberries and broccoli are more famous for their antioxidant content (you may have heard of anthocyanins and sulfuraphanes), legumes contain flavonoids, lignans, phytosterols, and other bioactive compounds that may protect us from chronic disease and inflammation.
5) Help maintain a healthy gut due to their prebiotic fiber, which is the fast food for our good gut bacteria.
The American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society all recommend legumes as one of the most important food groups for disease prevention and optimal health.
Legumes on a low FODMAP diet
Legumes are rich in prebiotic fibers known as oligosaccharides (mostly GOS, or galacto-oligosaccharides, and also fructans). As humans don’t have the enzymes necessary to break these molecules down, they go through our GI tract unabsorbed, end up in the large intestine, where our gut bacteria digest them and use them for energy. Unfortunately, the result of this fermentation process is gas, and for people with IBS, it’s an exaggerated amount of gas, which can also induce bloating and pain.
For this reason, most beans, lentils, and dried peas are excluded during the elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet. Studies have shown that after only 3-4 weeks of a low FODMAP protocol, the gut bacteria diminish in variety and numbers due to a low prebiotic fiber intake. The good news is that they can repopulate after re-introducing foods high in prebiotics. Most people find that they tolerate some or most legumes, either in smaller or even larger portions.
Here is how to prepare them to minimize the gas production:
During the elimination diet, you can have small amounts (no more than ½ cup) of canned chickpeas and lentils as they as low enough in FODMAPs to be suitable for this phase.
Afterwards, if you pass the GOS challenge, you can start by reintroducing small amounts of other canned beans first, as the canning process drastically lowers the amounts of FODMAPs. You can read more about the effect of food processing on FODMAPs here. Be sure to drain them and rinse them well.
To increase the variety of beans in your diet, you may also want to try cooking them yourself. Soak them overnight, discard the soaking water, and cook them in fresh water until they are very soft. Start with channa dal, urad dal, and chickpeas (lowest in FODMAPs), then try butter beans, and red or green lentils. Last, try the higher-FODMAP varieties: soy, borlotti, lima, red kidney beans, and split peas (highest!).
Finally, the enzyme supplement alpha-galactosidase helps some people tolerate beans more easily.
Tips for cooking and eating legumes
Plan ahead: soak them the night before you intend to eat them. If you forget, stock your pantry with a few cans your favorite legumes to have some handy.
If you don’t have the time to cook them when you set out to make lunch or dinner, prepare them ahead of time (for example during the weekend), and store them in airtight containers or even freeze them in the portions you know you will need for your favorite recipes.
Add herbs and spices to vary the flavor: they are delicious! Cumin and coriander, when added to the cooking water, also help decrease the gas production.
You can add beans or chickpeas to any salad for a complete meal; prepare a quinoa-tabbouleh and add some chickpeas.
Have them as a snack: try my Spiced Roasted Chickpeas recipe.
Replace part of the ground beef in your Bolognese sauce with canned lentils.
Make your own hummus: You can use garlic-infused olive oil to replace the garlic, and canned chickpeas. Blend in a mixer with some lemon juice, a little water and salt to taste, then add cumin and paprika for additional flavor. Divide into the portion size that correspond to a maximum of ½ cup chickpeas.
Put them in soups or stews. Just start with the smallest amount you know you can tolerate, then slowly increase the portions and see how you tolerate them. Try my Mexican Lentil Chili below.
Mexican Lentil Chili
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 Tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped green tops of scallions (1 oz.)
1 medium red or orange bell pepper (1/3 lb.), small dice
1 small green chili, de-seeded and minced
1-2 teaspoons chili powder (depending on desired level of heat)*
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
1, 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1, 15-oz can black or brown lentils, drained and rinsed
½ oz dark (60 or 70%) chocolate, finely chopped
½ teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
3 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
*Make sure to check the ingredients’ list as some chili powder blends add garlic and/or onion. Spicy foods may be a trigger for some people. Adjust amount of chili powder according to tolerance.
1. Bring 1 and 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and quinoa. Bring back to a simmer, then lower the heat, cover and cook for 10-12 minutes. Stir, cover and let the quinoa rest for 5 minutes.
2. While the quinoa is cooking, heat the oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add the scallion tops, bell pepper, and green chili. Cook for 6-7 minutes, until softened. Check and stir often, adding some water, if needed.
3. Add chili powder, cumin and salt and stir for 1 minute.
4. Add tomatoes and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10-12 minutes, until thickened.
5. Stir in lentils, quinoa, chocolate, and ½ cup water. Let simmer for an additional 5 minutes, until flavors have blended.
6. Taste and add lemon juice, if desired, and adjust for salt, if needed.
7. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with corn tortillas on the side.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.