Legumes: What They Are and Why You Should Eat Them

If you look up any healthy eating plan, you’ll almost always find legumes listed as a food to eat. Throughout history they’ve been a powerful dietary staple for many cultures worldwide. That’s because they’re nutritious, inexpensive, shelf-stable, and easy to use.

Despite the many recommendations to eat them, most people don’t know exactly what they are or how to incorporate them into meals. If this is true for you, you’ll find this article helpful.

Legumes Explained

If you look at a peanut that’s still in the shell, you’ll notice a line running down the length of the shell that splits it in half. That’s a legume. An edible plant with pods that divide into two halves and have seeds lined up inside. It’s the seeds you eat most of the time.

In the botany world, legumes are actually fruit. Biochemically, legumes are complex carbohydrates that contain starch and fiber. The body can digest certain starches well, but not others. When the bacteria in your colon start working on the hard-to-digest starches, gas can get created, and passed. You might notice it more if you don’t eat legumes regularly.

Legumes come in two categories: mature and immature:

  • Mature: They live in the plant until they’re dry and hard, like split peas or navy beans. You buy them dry in a package or after they’ve been cooked and put in cans.
  • Immature: They get eaten before the seeds get hard, like snap beans, fresh peas, or edamame (immature soy beans).

List of Legumes

Below is a list of popular legumes. Most of them are dried or canned, but a few of them are immature and can be eaten fresh. Almost all of them are available at your local grocery store. If you can’t find them there, try a specialty or ethnic food store.

  • Adzuki beans
  • Black beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Cannellini beans
  • Cranberry beans
  • Fava beans
  • Garbanzo beans (Chick peas)
  • Green beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Lima beans
  • Mung beans
  • Peanuts
  • Pinto beans
  • Red beans
  • Snap peas
  • Snow peas
  • Soybeans
  • Split peas
  • White beans (Navy beans)

Reasons to Eat Them

Many experts believe eating more legumes is one of the best and easiest things you can do for your diet. We know for sure they:

  • Are superfoods filled with protein, vitamins and minerals (folate, potassium, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc), antioxidants, and complex carbohydrates (the good kind).
  • Have the most fiber of any food group. (Read more about the importance of fiber in your diet here.)
  • Digest slowly and don’t cause blood sugar spikes (they have a low glycemic index) because of their impressive protein plus fiber combo.
  • Lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Are associated with a lower body weight.
  • Promote healthy bacteria in the gut that keeps your colon healthy.
  • Can be the main source of protein in your diet. As a high quality, low-cost protein, they’re one of the main reasons vegetarians and vegans don’t need to eat meat or cheese. Soybeans, lentils, dried beans, and peas are four of the top five vegetable sources of protein.

How Many Legumes Should You Eat?

If you’re not eating them now, aim to eat about ½ cup of cooked legumes at least three times a week, with the goal to eat about 2 to 3 cups of legumes per week (more is even better). A recent study suggests eating ¾ cup a day can help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol.

It’s normal for people who don’t eat legumes regularly to feel gassy when they start to eat more of them. If this is the case for you, eat half the amount and work your way up. The more frequently you eat legumes, the better your body gets at digesting them.

Ways to Get More of Them in Your Diet

To eat more legumes beyond everyone’s favorite, peanut butter, think bean soups including chili – or breakfast burritos with black beans. Try the tofu version of your favorite carry-out dish. Snack on hummus, roasted garbanzo or soy beans, or edamame.

Below are other easy ways to include more legumes in your daily diet:

  • Stock your pantry with a variety of canned beans such as chickpeas, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and cannellini beans for a quick addition to almost any meal.
  • Toss chickpeas, kidney beans, or pinto beans in salads.
  • Keep a batch of hummus in the fridge for a quick go-to spread for whole-grain crackers, pita bread, sandwiches, and wraps.
  • Start your lunch or dinner meal with a bean, lentil, or split pea soup.
  • Make a French lentil salad by tossing cooked lentils with an olive oil and herb vinaigrette dressing.
  • Substitute cooked, stewed, or mashed beans for potatoes or rice as a side dish twice a week.
  • Stir red beans or peas into rice for a zesty Cajun or Latin-inspired dish.
  • Include black beans in salsa.
  • Fill a whole-grain tortilla with refried vegetarian beans, salsa, and shredded cheese for breakfast or lunch.
  • Combine cooked pasta with cooked white beans, tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic.
  • Roast cooked or canned chickpeas – drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and your favorite seasonings – in a hot oven for 30 minutes.

If you need tips for preparing and cooking dried beans, chickpeas, and whole dried peas from scratch, this is a helpful guide.

Meet the Author

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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