You probably know that legumes are a healthy source of fiber, and even a bit of protein and some carbs as well. This is all true, but legumes have a few more characteristics that makes them a complex food with some pros and cons.
There has been recent debate about whether legumes should be included in our diet. For the Paleo community, they would argue that our ancestors didn’t consume them nor are they healthy due to the levels of anti-nutrients they contain. The Keto community would say they contain too many carbs and in order to be healthy, you have to stay in ketosis and avoid carbs. Yet the Vegetarian, Vegan and Plant-based communities would argue their diet involves several servings of legumes weekly, if not daily.
So, who’s right? Should we eat or avoid legumes?
Beans and lentils can be high in folate, manganese, copper, and magnesium. Half a cup of lentils will provide about 20 grams of carbs, 7 grams of fiber, 45% of folate, 27% of copper and 22% of manganese, among other nutrients.
In terms of high fiber, legumes can be an excellent source of prebiotic food for the gut. This promotes a healthy gut flora, one of the main components for overall health. A healthy digestive system will aid in everything from weight loss, mood, hormone levels, and even give the immune system a boost. The fiber within legumes will also slow down gastric emptying so you feel fuller longer. Including fiber, along with fermented vegetables in your diet regularly is one delicious dietary strategy you can use to support the health of your digestive system and gut flora.
With all of these health benefits, it’s easy to see why legumes have been implicated in disease prevention from type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Yet, as we saw above there are many diets out there advocating to not include them. Here’s why.
Legumes contain a higher saponin, phytic acid, and lectin content than other foods. These are known as “anti-nutrients” to humans but are a defense system to plants. Plants need a system in place to protect their offspring and so these “toxins” actually help protect them against their predators.
If you consume too many of these “anti-nutrients” there’s the potential they’d block the absorption of zinc, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. Legumes also get a bad rap for their ability to irritate the gut lining. And since we already have enough lifestyle factors impacting the health of our gut, it is thought that people who are susceptible to leaky gut and dysbiosis can decrease their risk of inflammation by avoiding foods with these compounds.
Here is a little more detail about each of these compounds
Additionally, if these same compounds that some communities shun on the basis of being “toxic” are grouped with foods that these communities still eat, such as nuts and cacao, this seems to be a major flaw in the argument. My opinion and advice for you is to enjoy the foods that come from nature in moderation and according to your body’s unique tolerance. What works for me may not work for you. So, we owe to ourselves to each feed our bodies with real, whole foods and practice variety and moderation.
One caveat when considering if legumes should be in your meal rotation is your tolerance of FODMAPS. FODMAP stands for: Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols.
These are foods with short-chained carbohydrates that are not easily digested. If you happen to be sensitive to these, you will know exactly how it feels to not tolerate them! And therefore, they may not be the ideal food to include in your diet. Of course, if you love legumes and know they will be a staple in your diet due to preference or culture, you can work within a FODMAP restrictive diet to remedy your tolerance of legumes by:
- Soaking your beans and tossing the water (cook in new water)
- Keeping portions small, and eventually increase as tolerated
If you ultimately feel they don’t agree with you it’s okay to skip out on beans and lentils and include other foods to obtain their nutrients.
The biggest issues with legumes are consuming them on a regular basis and in large quantities. Try including sprouted beans in your salad or having hummus with veggies or blended into your pesto to add a variety of nutrients to your diet.
As outlined in Glow15, it’s not just about what you eat, but just as importantly, when you eat that matters. Based on the research I’ve developed a Fat First, Carbs Last approach to the timing of eating certain foods. When you start your day with a fat based meal you’ll be setting yourself up for stable energy, a balanced mood and a metabolism that works in your favor all day long. Eating whole food, unrefined carbs, like those contained in legumes as part of your last meal will help you get the most out of them as they relax your nervous system and set you up for a good night’s sleep.
Creating the diet that works best for you can be as individualized as you are! Legumes can be a healthy, whole food that requires proper preparation and portions, but can especially help build up a healthy gut flora and therefore, a healthier you!