Happy New Year (New Decade!)! A time that brings new goals, new beginnings and new diet trends. 2019 saw the rise of plant-based proteins with brands like Impossible Foods™ and Beyond Meat®, and the push to eat more plants is likely to continue. According to an article from USA Today, the popularity of plant-based meals and foods is expected to rise through 2020. With this in mind, we would like to take a moment to highlight the humble but mighty legume! A food that can be repurposed into plant-based protein “burgers” or stand all on its own. The health benefits of legumes are pretty remarkable, and we have outlined them below!
What exactly is a legume?
A legume plant is a plant that produces its seeds in a pod. Those seeds are the legumes. This includes things like pea pods, soybeans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and even peanuts. Legumes provide a wide range of macronutrients and micronutrients, but in general, legumes are higher sources of protein than other plant foods, and especially good sources of folate. Though legumes are good sources of protein, they tend to be lacking in an essential amino acid (protein component) called methionine. Pairing a legume with a grain can help to make up for this, because protein in grains provide a good source of methionine.
Benefits of plant protein
Many benefits exist for plant proteins. However, it may not be the protein itself, but the nutrients that are connected to those proteins. Some nutrients of interest are B vitamins, and minerals like zinc, and non-heme iron. One study that was included in a 2019 scientific review on plant proteins found that substituting legumes for red meat improved fasting blood glucose, triglycerides, and LDL-cholesterol, particularly in people with Type 2 Diabetes. In addition, there has long existed a correlation that vegetarians’ body weight and cholesterol levels tend to be in a healthier range than the rest of the population.
- Legumes are typically a good or excellent source of fiber. A half-cup serving of black beans provides 6 g fiber. A fourth-cup of lentils has 9 g of fiber. Compare that to Whole Grain Cheerios™, which requires a serving of 1 1/3 cup to provide just 4 g of fiber. Fiber is something we need, but often do not get enough of. Women should aim for 25 g of fiber per day and men should aim for 38 g of fiber per day. Unfortunately, the average American adult eats about 15 g of fiber daily.
- The benefits of fiber range from weight control to blood sugar control. Another well-known benefit of fiber is its ability to help with digestion. Different types of fiber help to regulate digestion, and add bulk to stools. This not only helps you to feel better in the short term, but can also help lower risk of bowel diseases like colorectal cancer and diverticular disease. A high fiber diet has been linked to improved cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugars. Finally, a high fiber food helps to increase your feeling of fullness, which is why fiber seems to help with weight loss.
- There are certain types of fibers, which are sometimes referred to as prebiotics. All prebiotics are fiber, yet not all fiber is a prebiotic. These fibers are particularly helpful because they can be fermented (digested) by our body’s good gut bacteria. Thus, they are referred to as prebiotics because they help our body’s probiotics to flourish. Prebiotics may be an even better way to increase good gut bacteria because unlike probiotics, prebiotics are not fragile and affected by heat (cooking). Many legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, and red kidney beans happen to be a good source of prebiotic fiber. When prebiotics are fermented, the process produces short chain fatty acids as a result. There is evidence to suggest that these short chain fatty acids are used beneficially by our immune system and our brains. This may explain why high fiber diets seem to decrease risk of infection, as well as mental health concerns like depression.
Now that we have convinced you of the health benefits of legumes, let’s discuss their practical benefits! First, legumes are hugely cost effective. Per 100 g of food, dried lentils typically cost $0.50 compared to $1.40 for chicken breast. They also allow for a much longer shelf life than animal proteins. This helps to decrease both cost of purchase and cost of potential waste. Finally, legumes are incredibly versatile. Beans and lentils can be incorporated as a side, a soup ingredient, or dressed up as a main dish. Recently, food companies have been repurposing legumes into everything from a plant based burger to high protein pasta noodles. One of our favorite ways to enjoy legumes is in Banza® chickpea pasta. Banza® has created a line of chickpea pastas that are high in fiber and protein without sacrificing taste. Turning chickpeas into pasta is a fun take on a classic, which boosts the nutritional value of a favorite like Lasagna. This month we are featuring a CHARGE Nutrition Banza® lasagna – check out the recipe here! Finally, try other ways to incorporate legumes into your day. Your health will thank you for it!
Post written by Ashley Haluck, MS, RD, LDN