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?
Legumes have long been considered a high fiber, and healthy vegetarian source of protein. In addition to protein, they are much higher in nutrients than other grains. Depending on the kind of legume, some have a higher ratio of protein: carb than others. A good rule of thumb is to go by size, the smaller the bean, the higher the ratio. Lentils and black beans, for example, have more protein than chickpeas.
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 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
Lectins are found in grains, nuts, and legumes. Lectins are not able to be digested and cause flatulence. On a more serious level, they can irritate the digestive system and cause leaky gut syndrome. Many studies have linked lectins to autoimmune diseases. Pressure cooking legumes for 30 minutes can degrade most lectins and soaking them also decreases their activity.
Plants contain phytic acid as their means of storing phosphorus. Once in the body, it binds to minerals like calcium, iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc and can lead to nutrient deficiencies. There is research to suggest that some amount of phytic acid can be beneficial in preventing cancer, and even having the right gut biome can actually convert phytic acid into inositol, an important molecule in the nervous system. Inositol helps to increase insulin sensitivity, so this is definitely something I am in favor of. Phytic acid can be easily remedied by soaking your beans. Soaking overnight can reduce their content by as much as 80%.
Saponins are another potential anti-nutrient that can cause leaky gut, but more research is still needed. Not all saponins are the same, and while some can have detrimental effects on the immune system, others have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects (like those within soy and quinoa) and be protective against cancer. In my New York Times bestselling book, Glow15, saponins are one of the nutrients in certain foods that have been shown in studies to activate autophagy. Learning the different ways to activate your autophagy can reduce your risk for chronic diseases, boost immunity, and help you to look and feel your absolute best.
Given the health implications of lectins and phytic acids in certain plant-based foods, I still suggest including them in the diet if you can tolerate them. In the right amount and with the proper preparation, they play a role in a well-rounded, healthy diet.
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!