LEGUMES – Why and How To Love Them

Most people would acknowledge that a diet without vegetables would be missing important nutrients. However they might be missing out on an equally significant category of food: legumes.

Legumes are characterised as seed bearing pods such as fresh peas and beans; dried and sprouted beans, split peas, dhal and lentils; soy products and peanuts. They are among our oldest cultivated plants – lentils were grown in Central Asia in 7,000 BCE. So esteemed was this classification of food that each of the four prominent families of Ancient Rome sought to enhance their status by taking one major type as their name: Cicero from the word for chickpea; Fabius from faba bean; Lentulus from lentil; Pisa from pea.

But why bother with beans today and what about their potential social downside? There are only 4 classifications of plant foods: legumes; grains; nuts and seeds; vegetables and fruit – all with critically different properties. Each is a source of plant protein (legumes are among the highest; see my website TIPS: Protein). Each is a source of fibre (legumes are a good source of both soluble fibre for Gut-TIPS, immune health and blood sugar levels -BSL; the liver’s disposal of heavy metals, excess cholesterol and hormonal wastes; and of insoluble fibre for efficient elimination). Each contains carbohydrate (low-cal, mostly low-fat legumes are high in slow-to-break-down, low GI forms that help regulate BSL and thus mood, vitality and weight).

Each contributes thousands of specialised phytochemicals and antioxidants (legumes are among the top two sources of phytohormones that lodge in hormone-sensitive receptors and help prevent abnormal cell growth). Each contains a particular spectrum of vitamins and minerals (legumes are strong providers of B vitamins, folate, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium – TIPS; and vitamin C in sprouts).

When dietary frugality is advised people can be quick to assert that no matter how bereft their circumstances they will not be eating beans. There is perhaps an image of a plate set before them with a plain mound of virtuous but tedious lentils. Yet this is in contrast to the enthusiasm that most show for a dip of hummus, baked beans on toast, or Indian curry. Top restaurants will ask hearty sums for meals featuring puy lentils, French cassoulet, white bean antipasto, or miso grilled fish. So it is not legumes themselves that are the drawback, but a lack of skill in knowing how their blandness can dynamically support and contrast the flavours and textures most world cuisines appeal to us by. Potato, pasta and rice are equally mild and starchy and thus similarly provide a foundation for sensual subtleties.

Toxins in Perspective

Outrage can appear more fun than analysis. Headlines about ‘anti-nutritive compounds’ can attract more attention than reasoned evaluation. Most natural foods contain components that are toxic at a high enough dose. It is said in science that substances do not kill but dosages do. Plant foods have more innate toxins than animal foods because they use these – instead of teeth, claw and running legs – to avoid predators. In excess phytates (highest in grains) can diminish certain minerals but their antioxidant function helps reduce cancer risks. Saponins are poorly absorbed but combine with any unneeded cholesterol and eliminate it. Protease inhibitors are in most plants. These can inhibit full break down and add bulk to the stool: a crafty reproductive strategy so they can have their remains excreted and still be able to germinate.

Some people experience increased intestinal gas when they eat legumes. This can be because of insufficient soaking or cooking, or because their gut is simply unused to the menu item. Try having small amounts regularly and follow the extra preparation advice below. If bloating or gas remains a problem then try one month only of digestive enzymes capsules (too much dependence on these can weaken your own production of enzymes). If this is still insufficient help then contact this office for an allergy test (see TIPS: Why You May Be Allergic to the 20th Century).

One factor that may initially be troublesome is the oligosaccharide content. These are short chains of simple sugars found in carbohydrate foods such as onion, soy and asparagus. Varieties such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are sometimes added to probiotic formulas such as lactobacillus and acidophilus capsules to feed gut flora, improve gastrointestinal health and thus immunity. Note: any individual component of food – however natural – will not suit everyone. It takes perceptive experimentation, or diagnosis and tailoring by an expert to find what truly does. Some people can not tolerate starchy carbs from grain, veg, legumes or other foods. See Gut and Psychology Syndrome for the GAPS diet or medical sites for the FODMAP diet.

Planning, Preparation and Cooking Tips

• Start your introduction to legumes by buying a few tins of plain varieties (in brine or salted water rather than bean salad mixtures with sugar etc). These are inexpensive and often on sale.

• Discover which types you and your household enjoy most and then buy packets of the dried version. Dry legumes will generally triple in volume once cooked. Check out health stores and Indian stores for greater variety. Cook 1 type each month and freeze in amounts suited to your needs.

• Discard shrivelled or discoloured legumes. Soak overnight in ample water. If digestion is an issue then soak for 2-3 days until they start to sprout. Drain off all water. Place legumes in large pot with lots of fresh water – salt, vinegar, tomato or other acids will slow cooking time. Boil with the lid off as they tend to foam. Soaked lentils/split peas cook in 3-10 minutes; chickpeas 40 minutes; most large beans take 90 minutes. A well cooked legume is not mushy but can be squeezed readily between two fingers.

• Each week use one tin or freezer tub of legumes. If others in your household are not so keen then legumes are ideal at lunch. Add to soup; leftover rice, pasta or starchy veg (such as kumara or potato) and cook (or mix in lunch box) with Malcolm Harker Sea Salt with Kelp; spices or fresh herbs; soy sauce, vinaigrette, homemade dressing, or mashed avocado with lemon juice. At least 1/3 of your meal should be veg. Easy additions are baby spinach, sliced courgette, mushrooms, spring onion, radish.

• For added protein and thus better BSL combine legumes with 2 or more other plant food categories such as vegetables, plus grains (eg rice, pasta, bread) or nuts/seeds (cashews, soymilk-based white or curry sauce, Tahini Dressing – see RECIPES or The Shape Diet) . For more on the principles of ‘protein complementarity’ and meal examples see TIPS: Protein.

• Keep a bean dip/spread similar to hummus on hand to add to lunches for protein, fibre and flavour. Use on bread, crackers, salad, or cooked veg. Or use to top a quick dinner of mixed steamed veg, plain or alongside rice or pasta. Mash any cooked dried bean with potato masher or in blender and prepare as for hummus with olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar. Season Asian-style with soy sauce, chilli sauce or toasted sesame oil; grated ginger, curry or garam masala; fresh coriander or spring onion. Or go Mediterranean-style with garlic; parsley, mint or basil; tahini or mustard; olives, capers, diced gherkins, or toasted pistachios.

• Or use the above bean dip to fill portabella mushrooms caps, hollowed courgettes or pumpkin; or oiled eggplant slices grilled until soft; top with breadcrumbs; Fan Grill or bake. Or in casserole dish layer bean dip with cooked pasta or breadcrumbs, grilled eggplant slices or horizontally sliced portabella mushrooms. Top with pine nuts tossed with soy sauce, or a tomato-based sauce. Bake as for lasagne.

• Try using less meat in stews, spaghetti, lasagne etc and adding legumes. Start with 2/3 meat and 1/3 legumes to gradually accustom your taste buds and gut flora. Make soup for dinner (freeze extra for lunches) containing whole legumes; or cook and puree with starchy veg such as pumpkin or kumara for a creamed (and disguised) effect with/without milk; or serve with a dollop of hummus; or precede or accompany with an antipasto platter of hummus, raw veg and small crackers or hot toast fingers.

• Add whole or mashed beans as the base for fritters and patties. Use egg to bind with optional breadcrumbs or left-over rice; grated carrot or courgette, and season as for bean dip. Or use mixture as a crust patted into an oiled pie dish (see The Shape Diet for full recipe). See also website RECIPES: Bean Burgers for a family pleaser you can fry, bake, barbeque or make as ‘meatballs’.

• Experiment with tofu (RECIPES: Tofu Tempters). An easy way to use firm tofu is to grate it like cheese. Place in a covered glass dish and use within 1 week. Add to salad, soup, stir-fry, fritter, patty. Or for sandwiches toss with something flavourful (vinaigrette, mustard, soy sauce, chilli sauce, Green Herb/Spinach Pistachio Dressing – see The Shape Diet) and use with salad veg; use Better Butter (RECIPES), Dynamite (The Shape Diet), avocado or mustard to replace butter/margarine as a spread.

Maria Middlestead Reg.Clinical Nutritionist, Auckland Call Today!

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