As I’ve sat down at numerous roadside vendors, cantinas, food stalls, cafes or restaurants, I’m always surprised at the lack of legumes present on the menu. The further away from the road I sit, and the more ensconced in an establishment, the words “lentils” “frijoles” “pea” are not seen on the menu. The American dietary guidelines (1) count beans and peas as either a vegetable or a protein food. So, why wouldn’t legumes be more visible on the menu? Legumes are an oft forgotten food staple, primarily grown in the agriculture industry for livestock feed; yet not for people feed. However, it is not popularly eaten on a daily basis by most busy, cellphone-carrying, can-wearing consumer-ites.
Legumes are not exotic or a delicacy to be only served on festive occasions. They are present in everyday items for human consumption (chili, peanut butter, dal, tofu, pork and beans, lentil soup) just that the choices of foods are not always popular. This is strange since it is now popular for people to eat a HEALTHY diet of “whole” foods (not fried or processed) and what can be more healthy and whole than the perfect pea? Or lentil? Or chickpea? They are similar to meats, poultry, and fish in their contribution of nutrients. Therefore, they are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. Many people consider beans and peas as vegetarian alternatives for meat. So, they are also considered part of the Vegetable Group because they are sources for vitamins/minerals such as folate and potassium (2) and almost non-existence in lipid (aka: fat) or cholesterol and high in dietary fiber. Aahhh, the all-elusive component of our diet that is difficult to obtain the recommended amount. (25g/d for women, 38g/d for men). (3)
There are so many benefits of legumes; I don’t need to list the healthy points to the average person for them to understand my enthusiasm. Beans are shelf stable -no multi-syllabic chemical words to keep them from spoiling- and inexpensive per unit. Beans are available in all forms – dried, frozen, fresh or canned. So versatile!
Is there ever too much of a good thing? Of course! Too much or an excessive amount can never have a positive outcome. Whilst legumes contain macro-, micro-nutrients, they do have other components –phytochemicals- that are not well understood -they are plant-based and to understand all of the chemical compounds’ entire affects in the body requires a lot more research, after all, we still do not know the full effects of an apple! – in excessive amounts. Although, in defense of the great machine called the human body, we have co-existed with these natural plant chemicals for all our lives. A quick literature search of the scientific portals with the keywords, “legumes”, “beans”, “toxicity”, “humans” show studies on the of anti-nutritive factors such as lectin, saponin, or phytate which are binders of potentially healthy components for absorption, but focused on the potential application for human health. Mainly, the anti-nutritive factors, aforementioned are being investigated in treatments to control type 2 diabetes (4) or strategies for weight management (5).
Overall, the differences of the physiological effects in the body from legumes are dependent on the nutrient composition of the bean itself. Difference in the nutrient composition of polysaturated fatty acids, dietary fiber or carbohydrate and protein content and phytochemicals may alter the mechanisms of action of the nutrient’s utilization and effects the outcome in health and diseases.
Examples of legumes:
note: Legumes also include pulses, though in common vernacular is interchangeable. Pulse, or dry legume, is derived from the classification of the crops only harvested for their dry grain.(6)
4.Thondre PS. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2013;70:181-227
5.Trigueros et. al., Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2013;53(9):929-42.
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