Legumes are a family of plants that produce simple pods (carpels) to hold their seeds. Peas are a popular legume in the American diet.
When you pick a pea pod off the plant, you can see the seam running around the long edge of the pod.
Split open the pod, and you have the green pea seeds that we recognize from the cafeteria lunch line.
Besides peas, the list of legumes we eat, use as animal feed, make into oils, and use for fertilizing other plants, is a long one.
The most popular dietary green legumes are garden (green) beans, green pea pods (sugar snap peas, snow peas), and edamame (green soy beans).
We also eat dried legumes like baked (navy) beans, kidney beans, Garbanzo beans (chick peas), Lima beans, peanuts, and lentils. When the seeds are dried, as in bags of split peas, lentils, and soup beans, they are called pulses.
Although we all probably eat some legumes, they are a vital source of nutrients in much of the developing world, especially where meat and other protein sources are too expensive for frequent consumption.
The typical U.S. diet is no where near being low in animal protein.
From my earliest food memories, beans and peas were always considered good, nutritious foods.
When hummus (dried, cooked, and ground chick peas) became an American mainstream food, it was also considered healthy – especially with cut, fresh veggies.
Lately, though, articles and news stories have been casting doubt on the inclusion of legumes in a healthy diet.
Where has this legume-hating come from?
The Musical Fruit
You know the bloating and gas that sometimes happens as your body digests beans?
It’s cause by the high fiber content of legumes, and by substances called phytates.
Now, we know that fiber is good for us. It makes us feel full, and cleans out our digestive tracts so that harmful substances don’t have a chance to hang around.
Well, not everyone has such a positive take on phytates.
Do Phytates Block Nutrient Absorption?
Some online medical “professionals” swear that phytates make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients.
Phytates are, in fact, found in all edible seeds, including legumes.
If you eat a large amount of legumes and very little meat over a long period of time, you may become deficient in some nutrients.
However, the typical U.S. diet is no where near being low in animal protein.
Plus, cooking or otherwise preparing legumes in recipes dissipates most of the phytates.
Phytates are considered an anti-nutrient because they bind to minerals (e.g. zinc, calcium, and magnesium) and prevent their absorption. However, when analyzed carefully, the ‘anti-nutrient’ effect of phytates seems only to appear when a large quantity of phytates are consumed in conjunction with a nutrient-poor diet. Also, cooking, boiling, fermenting, soaking or germinating whole grains will inactivate phytic acid and free minerals up for absorption by the body. – “Busting the (Whole) Grain Myth,” by R. Oliveira,PhD, August 3
Got a Leaky Gut? Is It Nuts?
Saponins are another type of nutrients found in legumes, as well as many other plants. They may cause changes in the cells that line the digestive system.
Some people hypothesize that the lining of the intestine is thereby compromised, leading to “Leaky Gut Syndrome.”
I’ve done some research on this hypothesis, and it’s honestly hard to find good authority for the proposition that saponins cause leaky gut.
In fact, eating a diet “high in soluble fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables and legumes, feed[s] the beneficial bacteria in your gut (8, 54, 55).” – “Is Leaky Gut Syndrome a Real Condition? An Unbiased Look,” by Becky Bell, MS, RD, February 2, 2017, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-leaky-gut-real
This assertion makes more sense to me. However, the debate about what causes increased intestinal permeability in some people rages on.
While it does, let’s stick with common sense. Eating refined carbohydrates makes you feel “not so good,” and contributes to chronic health problems like diabetes and being overweight.
Eating foods high in soluble fiber, like legumes, does the opposite.
Trust your instincts.
Turn up the Heat on Kidney Beans
Lectins are proteins found in legumes, and they are the third substance that has come under scrutiny by critics.
Beans contain a lectin called hemagglutinin. Kidney beans are especially high in this substance.
Hemagglutinin poisoning can occur if large quantities of uncooked or under-cooked kidney beans are eaten. For that reason, people are advised to cook kidney beans thoroughly, as cooking destroys the toxicity.
Some research seems to indicate that taking in large quantities of raw lectins could have negative health effects. The amount you’d need to consume each day to get to that level, however, is much higher than a typical diet would include. And studies have shown that lectins break down when processed or cooked, so the risk of adverse health effects arising from lectin-rich foods that aren’t raw is not cause for concern. –
Mayo Clinic Q and A: “What are dietary lectins and should you avoid eating them?” by Liza Torborg, September 14, 2018.
Heat the Beans, Eat the Beans
The sum of all of this information is that, for most of us, eating legumes is a healthy and smart thing to do in our quest to be the best we can be.
Follow the cooking directions on dried legume packages. You won’t have any of the problems legume critics point to.
If you use canned beans, they are already cooked. No worries.
As far as fresh legumes, they don’t have concerning concentrations of lecthin. And, they contain lots of really great nutrients: protein, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, and manganese. Whew!)
Beyond Hummus, Baked Beans and Peanuts
I’ve been incorporating more legumes into our diet at home, and the claim that eating them makes you feel full is spot on.
My Ham and Bean Soup recipe is easy, and the soup is delicious even after it’s been frozen. That’s a time-saver.
A new legume for us is lentils, and this recipe produces a quick and filling lunch or side dish.
Finally, if you love cooked pea pods, check out these tips for making great pea pods that are truly “stringless.”
This post is not intended as medical advice. Consult with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise program.
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