What are legumes? What makes them different than beans? What are their health benefits? This list of legumes will give you comprehensive answers to all of these questions, so you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about legumes.
What Are Legumes? What About Beans?
Legumes are plants from the Leguminosae or Fabaceae family, unique because they produce fruit in the form of a seed pod. Roughly a pod or pea plant, legumes are a large category that encompasses thousands of plants, and beans are included in the legume family, along with peas, peanuts, and lentils.
To think of it another way, legumes are many types of plants, while beans specifically are the seeds of certain leguminous plants and are often shaped like kidneys. The same way that the term “fish” can include thousands of sea creatures, there are still saltwater vs. freshwater vs. deepwater fish, and within those categories, there are even more definitions that make a carp different from a catfish and a perch different from a pike, even though they are all white, freshwater, round fish.
When it comes to legumes and beans, you can probably name half a dozen off the top of your head: kidney beans, red kidney beans, black beans, green beans, fava beans, etc. With peas you can probably do the same: sweet peas, snap peas, split peas, snow peas, black-eyed peas, etc. All of them are types of legumes, and all of them are quite good for your health.
Read on to discover the health benefits of legumes and our top 10 list of the healthiest legumes you can eat.
The Health Benefits of Legumes
Here are some of the health benefits that come with the outstanding nutritional value of legumes and beans.
Including beans and legumes in your diet is an excellent way to safely lose weight and to keep the pounds off. High in both fiber and protein (which lead to more health benefits further down on this list), legumes can help curb your appetite and satiate hunger, two contributing factors to weight loss. In fact, a study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition showed that those who regularly ate beans in a group of over 1,400 people had a 22% lower risk of obesity, lower body weight, and a smaller waist size.
Not only can eating legumes help lower your cholesterol, both the dangerous LDL cholesterol as well as your overall cholesterol, but legumes can also reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Including legumes in a healthy diet helps normalize blood pressure and subdue inflammation.
Fiber and Digestive Regularity
The dietary fiber contained in legumes adds bulk to your digestive waste and helps it move through your body more comfortably, which is great news for those who have issues with constipation. Something as small as 1 cup of lentils cooked for dinner can bring 16 grams of fiber, which is 64% of the daily recommended value.
An increase in fiber is also recommended for those with leaky gut syndrome, which untreated could lead to other issues like irritable bowel, chronic fatigue, food allergies, and autoimmune and inflammatory reactions throughout the body. A little goes a long way when it comes to legumes and fiber.
Blood Sugar Control
The fiber in legumes also helps control and stabilize your blood sugar, as fiber slows the absorption of sugar in your bloodstream, protecting against dangerous spikes in blood sugar levels. Those who regularly ate legumes in a study of over 2,000 participants had lower blood sugar levels than those who did not.
Last but certainly not least, legumes are a good source of protein, especially for those eating a vegan or vegetarian diet. Meat eaters get their protein from animal sources, but for those looking for plant-based protein, beans and legumes are invaluable. Getting the proper amount of protein is necessary to ensure the essential amino acids required for building new muscle. Those eating only plant foods can diversify their protein sources by including various members of the legume family.
The Top 10 List of Healthy Legumes
So now that you know what legumes can do for you, which ones should you be shopping for? This list will give you a quick rundown of some of the top healthiest legumes for purchase.
1. Lima Beans
Also known as butter beans, these yellow-white flat beans have 15 grams of protein per cup and contain pectin, a soluble fiber associated with reducing post-meal blood sugar spikes. Just be sure to cook them, as lima beans are toxic when raw.
2. Black Beans
Black beans are another legume that can help reduce blood sugar spikes after a meal, which means a lower risk of diabetes. A regular staple in Central and South American cuisine, black beans when combined with white rice can help mitigate the rise in blood sugar better than white rice alone, making them a valuable contributor to any dish.
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, have been shown to aid in weight loss, reduce blood pressure, and lower the risk of heart disease. They may also lower the risk of cancer when used as a replacement for red meat in a person’s diet. In a study of 19 female participants, those who ate a meal containing chickpeas showed significantly lower insulin and blood sugar levels than those who ate equivalent amounts of white bread. On top of all that, chickpeas have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and to improve bowel function and gut bacteria.
4. Pinto Beans
Common in Mexican cuisine, pinto beans can reduce both “bad” LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol in those eating half a cup a day for 8 weeks. Whether consumed whole, fried, or mashed, these beans also increase the body’s production of propionate, which is a short-chain fatty acid that is good for gut health. Like so many other beans and legumes, pinto beans also help control the blood sugar spikes that occur after a meal.
5. Kidney Beans
Due to their high-fiber content, kidney beans help reduce blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar after a meal. Another study showed that an extract from white kidney beans (Phaseolus vulgaris extract) could help reduce the body mass of overweight men and women, which is a huge contributing factor for developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The 30 participants who took this supplement over a month’s time lost an average of 5.5 pounds more than those who took a placebo, dropping in fat mass and waist circumference as well.
Another blood sugar reducer (get used to that good news when eating beans and legumes!), lentils are linked to lower rates of diabetes when eaten regularly. Lentils can also improve gut health and bowel function by slowing the rate of stomach-emptying in both humans and dogs. Lentils support heart health by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing the “good” HDL cholesterol in the body.
Peas bring their own set of benefits to the dinner table. Another great source of protein and fiber, pea flour has also been shown to reduce belly fat and insulin resistance better than wheat flour. Pea fiber has the same ability to reduce blood sugar after a meal as other legumes do, as well as to lower blood triglycerides and increase feelings of satiety and fullness. Pea fiber has even been shown to reduce the need for laxatives in elderly participants due to its ability to improve gut health and regularity.
Often found in Asian cuisine and the basis of tofu, soybeans not only have many of the same benefits of other legumes (lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol), but they also have high levels of isoflavones, antioxidants that are responsible for a slew of their own health benefits.
Soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens, meaning they can mimic estrogen in the body, which is particularly beneficial to women going through menopause. A study of postmenopausal women showed that after 2 years of taking soy isoflavones, the loss of vitamin D, calcium, and overall bone density was significantly reduced. Soybeans are also associated with a 15% reduction in risk of stomach and gastrointestinal cancers.
9. Navy Beans
Navy beans, aka haricot beans, contain B vitamins and fiber that helps reduce the symptoms of metabolic syndrome. A study made up of obese and overweight adults demonstrated that 5 cups of navy beans or other legumes per week helped lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and waist circumference. In children with abnormal blood cholesterol, navy bean powder in a daily smoothie helped to increase their healthy HDL cholesterol.
Peanuts aren’t nuts but legumes. With B vitamins, monounsaturated fats, and protein, peanuts are associated with a lower risk of death from causes as various as stroke, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. While peanut butter is not consistently shown to have the same effects, other studies have found that eating peanuts lowers total cholesterol and harmful LDL cholesterol when included in a low-fat diet. Buy unsalted peanuts to keep them as healthy as possible.
Consistently shown to help improve cholesterol, reduce blood sugar levels, and provide useful dietary fiber, legumes are a strong food group that we should all be more accustomed with. Full of protein, B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, legumes aren’t only good for us, but they’re also environmentally friendly and good for the planet. Include them in salads, soups, stews, and stir-fries, or eat them on their own for a delicious and healthful meal!