Your Legumes Guide

Did you know that renowned sports personalities such as James Wilks, Lewis Hamilton, Meagan Duhamel and Fiona Oakes are all vegan?

We often associate sporting performance with a diet rich in animal meat proteins but there are so many high-profile sports stars who are proving that plant-based diets can absolutely provide all the right fuel.

The Power of Plant Based Diets

In my opinion whether you’re a sporting star or just looking for better health overall, a plant-based diet is super beneficial. It more closely resembles what our Palaeolithic ancestors ate. Stone age man consumed up to ten times more the amount of plants than we do today.

Blue Zones refer to geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else. There are 5 Blue Zones, Nicoya in Costa Rita, Sardenia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in California. Research shows that people in these Blue Zones typically eat a 95% plant-based diet that’s rich in legumes, whole grains, vegetables and nuts, all of which can help reduce the risk of death. Beans are the cornerstone of every Blue Zones diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. The long-lived populations in these blue zones eat at least four times as many beans as we do, on average.

Certainly, the upcoming awareness around gut health has helped shed light on the benefit of feeding our microbiome with these right probiotic foods. Perhaps if a raw vegan diet is a step too far for you or you can’t imagine your future without bacon in it. Not to worry if you can’t resist a juicy steak, you can start your journey being a ‘flexitarian’. This describes those who eat mostly plant-based with the occasional meat or fish component.  Maybe you can be a ‘Meatless Monday’ type person, where you reap some health benefits by going meat-free just once or twice a week in the beginning. You can explore a plant-based diet on your own terms, whatever that means for you. Maybe you don’t want to cut out meat from every meal at all, you simply focus on 80% plants, with 20% meat. Or maybe you think it’s pretty easy to do for breakfast and lunch, but you really just feel like your body needs meat for dinner. That’s okay too.

I think the biggest takeaway here is that your health is going to improve immensely simply by eating more plants and less animal products, and of course I highly recommend avoiding conventionally grown meat and always opting for organic, non-gmo and grass fed whenever possible.

How important are legumes in a plant-based diet?

Legumes belong to the Leguminosae family and are a group of foods that includes lentils, beans and peas. You often hear legumes and pulses used interchangeably, but the pulse is the edible part of the seed. Legumes are high in fibre, specifically viscous soluble fibre, which not only slows their absorption in the small intestine, but also binds up certain molecules having to do with cholesterol. This makes legumes very low in glycaemic index and load, meaning they result in lower blood sugars and less insulin released after eating them. This fibre also lowers cholesterol levels.

Hang on there’s more: not only are legumes high in fibre, they are also high in protein, making them very filling and satiating, so people tend to eat less of other things. The best legumes to look out for protein-wise include:

  • Fava beans (26.12 g/100g)
  • Lentils (25.8 g of 100g)
  • Split peas (24.55 g/100g)
  • Kidney beans (21.7 g of 100g)
  • Chickpeas (19.3 g of 100g)

According to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, ½ cup of beans provides 7 grams of protein, and surprisingly for many this is the same amount as in 1 ounce of chicken, meat or fish.

Legumes are low in fat, filled with fibre and contain a powerhouse of micronutrients and antioxidants like copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium and zinc. In fact, research suggests that eating beans regularly may decrease the risk of diabetes, heart disease, reduce risk of colorectal, breast, and prostate cancers and help with weight management.

Whichever legumes you may consume there are undoubtedly some compelling health reasons for considering a plant-based diet such as sustainability, animal welfare, to address a specific health challenge or to just feel better overall & lose weight. Whatever your motivation, the science is pretty clear.

Data compiled from 41 countries revealed that countries with the greatest consumption of beans had the lowest mortality rates due to colon cancer. In a Harvard study from the International Journal of Cancer, 90,638 cancer free women between 26 and 46 years old were monitored for eight years. Those who ate beans or lentils two or more times per week had a 34% lower risk of breast cancer than women who ate them one or fewer times per month. Additionally, data from 15 countries revealed that countries with the greatest consumption of beans had the lowest death rates due to prostate cancer.

Despite of all this good evidence, and given how healthy and economical beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are, people tend not to eat a lot of legumes.

What are the different types of legumes?

There are dozens of different legumes to choose from and every culture & country has their own special recipe for preparing them.

  • Chickpeas have a beautiful creamy texture when pureed and make they are the main ingredient in a spread like Hummus. Added to soups, stews or cooked dishes a whole chickpea will keep its shape and add heartiness to the dish.
  • Red kidney beans tend to be soft and can get a little mushy if you use canned but dried kidney beans have a much firmer texture when soaked and boiled.
  • Black beans are an oval shaped midsized bean. They have a black skin and a creamy interior.
  • Black-eyed peas are medium sized, oval beans that are cream coloured with a black dot.
  • Cannellini beans are large and have a traditional kidney shape. With a slightly nutty taste and mild earthiness, they have a relatively thin skin and tender, creamy flesh.
  • Great Northern beans are smaller than cannellinis and perfect for any number of recipes. Their texture is slightly grainy, with a nutty, dense flavour.
  • Navy beans are small and oval and cook relatively quickly, they are also used for baked beans in many recipes, are great in stews, soups, and pureed for bean dips.
  • Split peas are small dried peas that naturally split into two pieces. They are usually yellow or green and when cooked will soften and blend into your soup or stew.
  • Lentils come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, they are disc shaped and quite thin.
  • Mung beans are small, green legumes and most commonly used in Indian or Chinese cuisine. 
  • Adzuki beans are small, round, reddish-brown they are commonly used in East Asian cuisine sweetened as ice cream or a paste for buns and sweet pastries.

There is a great variety of each kind for you to choose from. Regardless of which legumes you choose, you will definitely reap quite a few benefits from eating it as each kind is equally beneficial to your health.

Have you realized how easy it is to cook legumes?

Not to mention cheap, fortifying and delicious. I cannot talk about legumes and not talk about a very popular topic these days, lectins. Some of us, including myself find it difficult to fully digest legumes especially beans, that is most probably due to the lectins found in the beans. Lectins are defined as proteins that bind to carbohydrates. The same features that lectins use to defend plants in nature may cause problems during human digestion. They resist being broken down in the gut and are stable in acidic environments, features that protect lectin-containing plants in nature. So the best way to avoid some of the side effects, is to soak until they begin to sprout and then cook them at high pressure or even better with a pressure cooker.

Dry legumes are best stored in air tight containers in a cool/dry location for up to 6 – 12 months.  Cooked grains and legumes can be stored in air tight containers and refrigerated for 2 – 3 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. Cannellini beans are my new favourite obsession and so incredibly full of flavour. It may sound simple but do not let that fool you in how big they are on flavour. Originally grown in Argentina, Cannellini beans are a popular variety in Italy that holds its shape making it a good bean to use in soups, stews, and salads. Mild and nutty with a meaty but tender and creamy texture I simply relish them!

Try out my favourite plant-based, gluten-free and dairy-free legume recipes:

  • Lentil Soup: hearty and warm appetizer soup and can easily be made at home.
  • White Cannellini Bean Soup: easy and yummy Tuscan Recipe here.
  • Hummus: you can make this Arabian delicacy at home. Check out my recipe Italian style hummus with sun-dried tomatoes here.
  • Vegetarian Chilli: this famous dish can be super healthy. Omit any meat and add extra beans.

References:

https://www.dietlicious.com.au/blog/Benefits-of-eating-a-plant-based-diet.html

https://www.livekindly.co/vegan-athletes-swear-by-plants/

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/blue-zones#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/love-those-legumes-2018102515169

http://www.adascan.ca/blog/need-know-legumes/

https://www.bodygoodfood.com.au/full-blog/2020/9/16/cooking-the-basics

www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/lectins

www.nfcr.org/blog/blogbountiful-benefits-beans/