What is a legume?
Legumes consist of any bean or pea from the leguminosae botanical family. They are also referred to as pulses. They are very versatile to cook with, have great nutritional value and can easily be added to many dishes or eaten on their own. Legumes can come dried, frozen or canned. The most common are listed below:
- Haricot (navy) beans
- Cannellini beans
- Red kidney beans
- Chick peas
- Faba bean
- Butter bean
- Soy beans
- Mung bean
- Field pea
- Black eyes bean
Legumes are a great addition to anyone’s diet for the following reasons:
Protein. Legumes are a great source of protein! This means they are a fantastic inclusion to a vegetarian diet. Legumes are also a very economical source of protein and contain a higher content when compared to most other plant foods. Legumes can be substituted for meat (e.g. in mince dishes) which will reduce the fat content and cost of the meal whilst also providing other nutrients.
See the next section for more on protein.
Energy. The carbohydrates in legumes provide good quality energy. This is thanks to their lower GI. The energy received from legumes is therefore released at a more gradual rate so it will last longer AND keep you fuller for longer.
Healthy fats. Legumes are virtually free of saturated fat and are low in the other types of fat. Peanuts and soybeans have a higher fat content but this mostly consists of mono and polyunsaturated fats – the good ones in moderation!
Fibre. The humble legume is full of fibre. Both soluble and insoluble forms of fibre which help keep your digestion regular, amongst many other health benefits. They also contain resistant starch which protects the health of your colon.
Vitamins. Legumes provide numerous vitamins – zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron and B vitamins. They are a good dietary addition to women planning pregnancy or those who are pregnant as they are a natural source of folate.
Low sodium. Legumes are low in sodium which is desirable for anyone. By draining and rinsing canned legumes, a large portion of the sodium is removed.
Coeliac friendly. Legumes are gluten free! So those who are coeliac or gluten intolerant need not worry. However, if they are in a sauce of any kind or in other foods – those must be checked for the presence of gluten.
Phytonutrients. Legumes contain phytonutrients (chemicals naturally found in plants) that research has shown may have a role in the prevention of certain cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis.
Convenience. Legumes can be a really convenient snack when you are on the run. They can also be easily added to many meals to up the nutritional content and reduce the fat content.
Is the protein as high quality as that found in animal sources?
Legumes aren’t a “complete” protein. This means that unlike animal sources (complete protein), they lack one or more of the essential amino acids – which is what protein foods break down to. This somewhat limits their activity. However, when they are combined with foods that contain the lacking amino acids – they make up a complete protein!
These are known as complementary proteins – 2 or more incomplete proteins that together provide all of the essential amino acids. This concept is illustrated in the image below.
Image sourced from: nature protocols
It was once thought that these complementary proteins had to be eaten in conjunction with each other to reap the benefits. We now know that we just require a balance of all the essential amino acids to be eaten over the entire day.
Legumes with grains/ seeds
Grains with dairy
Dairy with nuts, seeds or legumes
For example, legumes lack the essential amino acid methionine where as grains do not. On the other hand, grains lack lysine but legumes do not. By eating these 2 foods at some point during the day, all of the essential amino acids for optimal uptake of protein will be acquired e.g. eating tofu/ dahl with rice, beans with tortillas or yoghurt with nuts.
The table below is from the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council of Australia. It provides a cost comparison between legumes and other protein sources.
Legumes should be included as part of a healthy diet for anyone. Their nutritional benefits are best gained when they are regularly eaten as part of your diet. They are particularly useful for vegetarians as a source of protein (1 cup of legumes equals 1 serve of protein).
More information can be found at the following site, including tips on how to prepare legumes:
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This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have diet related questions or if you want healthy eating advice, Contact us today!