Bean There?

 
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Pulses, also known as legumes or beans, have been a part of the human diet for a very long time. They originated at Creation when God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Genesis 1:29).

Legumes, which include lentils, soy beans, kidney beans and chickpeas, have played an important role as a staple food in many cultures throughout history. The Bible, for example, mentions legumes several times, including an account in which Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a pot of lentils (Genesis 25:29–34). They’ve been discovered in the tombs of the pharaohs and Aztecs, and they’re mentioned frequently in Greek and Roman literature.

In addition to legumes being eaten boiled or in soups, they were ground into a meal and used to make heavier loaves of bread than can be made with grains. Legumes were one of the main food sources of the peasants of Europe during the Middle Ages. The fact that they play an important role in increasing soil fertility was known early on in history, although the mechanism for this was not discovered until the nineteenth century.

However, it appears that in recent times some Western nations have forgotten about this nutritious food. Legumes have often been referred to as the “poor man’s meat,” but most people would benefit from making them a regular part of their diets. This is especially true for combating the alarming rates of chronic diseases in the developed world.

Nutritional benefits

The United Nations (UN) has chosen to recognise the importance of legumes by declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP). It refers to legumes as “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future.” The purpose of the IYP is to promote the role of legumes in feeding the world, establish them as a primary source of protein and other essential nutrients for humans, and to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by legume growers. The UN has set a goal of increasing legume production by 20 per cent by 2020. It also aims to increase consumption by 10 per cent and to help improve market access to facilitate local, national and international trade.

Australia is one of the largest exporters of legumes in the world, yet their consumption remains a minor part of the Australian diet. In fact, many people—not just Australians—do not think to regularly include legumes in their meals. This means they are missing out on their numerous health benefits. The UN recommends that legumes be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity and to help manage or prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Legumes are both a vegetable and a meat-alternative. Being one of the richest sources of plant-based protein makes them a good substitute for meat. They’re also a good source of complex carbohydrates, which means that they’re digested more slowly and help us to feel fuller for longer. This makes them particularly good for preventing and managing diabetes. They’re full of nutrients, such as the B vitamins, iron, calcium, phosphorous, zinc and magnesium. They contain some essential fatty acids, while at the same time they’re low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. This makes them an ideal food for lowering the risk of heart disease.

Legumes are also high in dietary fibre, which helps to keep our bowels regular and reduces the risk of colon cancer.

Legumes feature in the diets of some of the longest-lived communities and are considered markers of longevity.

Addressing the side effects

Some people avoid legumes due to concerns about a possible increase in flatulence. Legumes contain a relatively high amount of fibre that’s broken down in the intestines by bacterial fermentation, which causes the gas. However, these dietary fibres are a source of food for our healthy intestinal bacteria.

The good news is that not everyone is affected by an increase in gas production after eating legumes, and most people adjust after a few weeks. Soaking and rinsing dry legumes before cooking them can reduce this side effect, as can rinsing canned legumes. Also, trying different types of legumes may be helpful, since flatulence can be less of an issue with some varieties.

To help minimise these symptoms, increase your legume intake slowly to give your body time to adjust. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day as well as doing regular physical activity can also help your body adapt to the extra fibre.

There are many types of legumes and even more ways for preparing them. You can buy dry or canned legumes in the supermarket. Canned legumes are usually found in the same aisle as canned vegetables. Rinse canned legumes and add them to pasta dishes, salads or stews. The quickest and most convenient option is to simply open a can of baked beans or lentils and eat them with toast or a baked potato.

If you’d like to cook dried legumes, be sure to soak them in water for six to eight hours, or overnight. With the exception of lentils and split peas, most dry legumes need to be soaked prior to cooking. They absorb a lot of water, so you need to use at least three cups of water for every cup of dry beans.

After they’re soaked, drain off the water and place them in a pan with fresh water. Bring them to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer them with the lid on for 30 to 45 minutes (or until they’re tender). You’ll know they’re cooked when they can be squashed easily when pressed with a fork. Don’t add salt before the legumes are cooked, because this will prolong the cooking time.

You can also cook more legumes than you need and freeze the drained and rinsed beans in small ziplock bags for use at a later date.

Part of a balanced diet

For optimal health and the prevention of chronic disease, it’s important to include a variety of foods from the five food groups, as outlined in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (or the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Current Food and Nutrition Guidelines). These include vegetables, grains, fruits, protein (including meat alternatives such as eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds and legumes) and calcium-rich foods.

There’s mounting research that demonstrates the health benefits and nutritional adequacy of a well-planned vegetarian and plant-based diet. When a variety of plant-based foods, including legumes, are eaten from the food groups listed above, all the nutritional needs of an individual will be met with the exception of vitamin B12, which is only found in animal-based foods (meat, dairy and eggs), fortified foods or supplements.

However, moving toward a more plant-based diet, consuming a variety of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, can contribute to better health and well-being for individuals and society as a whole.

Why not take the first step by participating in the International Year of Pulses and choosing to include legumes more regularly in your weekly meal plan—and encouraging others to do the same?