Legumes: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Legumes: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Legume is an umbrella term for plants in the Fabaceae family. Common types of legumes include peas, soybeans, and peanuts. The food has been an important source of nutrition worldwide for thousands of years.

Adding legumes to your diet is not only beneficial to your health but also good for the environment. Legumes are a sustainable and environmentally friendly protein choice. Many health and environmental experts encourage a legume-rich diet because you can meet your protein goals while also doing good for the planet.

This plant source provides fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals. The nutrients in legumes have been linked to several health benefits, including a reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

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Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber helps maintain your digestive health by regulating your bowel movements and reducing the risk of digestive conditions like constipation, diverticulitis (inflammation of pouches within your colon), and colon cancer.

For instance, research shows that people who follow high-fiber diets are much less likely to develop constipation than people who follow low-fiber diets. Research also suggests that people with high dietary fiber intake may be up to 21% less likely to develop colon cancer compared to people with low fiber intake.

Fiber-rich foods like legumes promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine by providing soluble fiber. Soluble fiber—fiber broken down by bacteria in your large intestine—releases beneficial compounds called short-chain fatty acids. These acids, like butyrate, acetate, and propionate, strengthen your gut barrier.

Eating more legumes could lower your risk of multiple health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

One review found that eating more legumes was associated with a 6% lower risk of cardiovascular disease (diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels) and a 10% reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The short-chain fatty acids that are released from the soluble fiber in legumes may also have benefits against diabetes.

Research suggests that legumes may also help with weight loss, which can benefit several chronic health conditions. Further research is needed to know what effect eating legumes weekly may have on preventing chronic conditions.

Legumes are good sources of potassium and magnesium, two minerals that help regulate blood pressure. Consuming high amounts of potassium and magnesium can reduce the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). One study showed that each 100-milligram (mg)-per-day increase in magnesium was associated with a 5% reduced risk of hypertension. So, eating legumes may help manage blood pressure.

Another study found that compared to people who eat low amounts of legumes, participants who consumed 55-70 grams of cooked legumes daily had a 43% lower risk of high blood pressure.

Other research also suggests that legumes reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) in people with elevated blood lipid levels. More research is needed to know how effective legumes are at reducing the risk of high blood pressure.

Legumes are also high in fiber and protein. Both of these nutrients slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream, making legumes a great option for people with type 2 diabetes. Eating more legumes improves long-term blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes. Legumes may also help prevent you from developing diabetes.

Some research also suggests that cooked legumes can reduce glucose (sugar) and insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone responsible for maintaining blood sugar levels in your body. Compared to carbohydrates like rice and bread, legumes were more effective at reducing glucose levels.

Common legumes include:

  • Kidney beans
  • Cannellini beans
  • Great Northern beans
  • Navy beans
  • Fava beans
  • Cranberry beans
  • Black beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Soybeans
  • Black-eyed peas

There are many types of legumes, each with different amounts of nutrients. However, all legumes provide plant-based protein, fiber, and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals.

Here’s the nutrition breakdown for one type of legume—a 1-cup serving of cooked lentils:

  • Calories: 230
  • Carbohydrates: 39.8 grams (g)
  • Fiber: 15.6 g
  • Protein: 17.9 g
  • Fat: 0.75 g
  • Folate: 0.358 milligrams (mg), or 90% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Thiamine: 0.335 mg, or 28% of the DV
  • Copper: 0.497 mg, or 55% of the DV
  • Iron: 6.59 mg, or 37% of the DV
  • Magnesium: 71.3 mg, or 17% of the DV
  • Manganese: .978 mg, or 43% of the DV
  • Phosphorus: 356 mg, or 28% of the DV
  • Potassium: 731 mg, or 16% of the DV
  • Zinc: 2.52 mg, or 23% of the DV

Lentils are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. Unlike many plant-based foods, lentils are packed with plant-based protein. For people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, legumes like lentils and chickpeas are a good alternative to meat as a primary source of protein.

In addition to protein, legumes are a great source of fiber. Many Americans do not meet the daily recommended fiber intake. According to the National Academy of Medicine, 20-30 grams of fiber is the recommended daily amount for adults. Adding just one cup of legumes to your diet can help meet guidelines.

Chickpeas, soybeans, and many other legumes are rich in magnesium, a mineral necessary for managing your blood sugar, nerve function, and digestive health. Legumes also supply your body with folate—a B vitamin responsible for DNA and RNA synthesis, cellular division, and cell growth.

Legumes are generally safe to enjoy in moderation. However, they are very high in fiber and may trigger bloating and gas in some people. Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed by your digestive system. They’re highly concentrated in legumes.

If you are sensitive to FODMAPs, you may experience gas, diarrhea, and bloating when adding more legumes to your diet. Researchers recommend slowly increasing your fiber intake to get your body used to a diet with more fiber.

Even though legumes are high in FODMAPs, people with a sensitivity to FODMAPs may still be able to eat small portions without any symptoms. Rinsing, soaking, and draining legumes can also reduce FODMAP levels in legumes.

Legumes like black beans, peas, and chickpeas can be added to soups, pastas, and salads. You can also enjoy legumes, such as peanuts, as a snack. Lentils are usually used in curry and soup recipes.

Some legumes are also available canned or dried. Canned options are ready to eat, while dried legumes require soaking and cooking before consumption.

Here are a few ways to incorporate legumes into your diet:

  • Add legumes like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas to soups and stews
  • Use legumes as a plant-based protein source in salad and grain dishes
  • Enjoy legumes like lentils and black beans as a plant-based patty
  • Make legumes an ingredient in curries and stews
  • Blend legumes with olive oil and fresh herbs to make a flavorful dip or spread
  • Coat cooked legumes, like chickpeas or soybeans, with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast them until crispy for a filling snack

Legumes can add flavor and texture to your favorite recipes. Experiment with how you like to enjoy them. This may include slow-cooking them or drizzling your favorite sauce over legumes of your choice.

There are many different kinds of legumes to choose from—including chickpeas, lentils, and soybeans—that are highly nutritious and have been shown to benefit your overall health in several ways.

Legumes can improve digestive health, reduce your risk of hypertension, and help with blood sugar management. There are many ways to add legumes to your diet. Because of their rich fiber content, slowly introduce legumes into your diet to prevent digestive issues.

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