Does the word legume sound foreign to you? I would not blame you if it does!  After all, it is one of the food groups least consumed by South Africans.

Simply put, legumes are a group of plant foods that contain seeds that split into two halves [1].  Some that you may be familiar with include…

  • Peas
  • Peanuts
  • Kidney beans
  • Cannellini beans
  • Baked beans
  • Four bean mix
  • Chickpeas
  • Red, green or brown lentils

The benefits of legumes

The value of legumes is emphasized by the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines of South Africa stating: “Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly” [1].  Beans, split peas and lentils are nutrient-dense, tasty and versatile foods for everyone to include as part of a healthy diet.  Legumes are a much more cost-effective substitution for meat as they are also great sources of good-quality protein, iron and zinc.  By regularly substituting foods that are high in saturated fat like meat, eggs and cheese with these legumes, as well as limiting refined carbohydrates, we can reduce the risk of chronic lifestyle diseases.  These include type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, all of which are major health concerns for South Africans.

Legumes, therefore, have the dual purpose of contributing to a healthy diet, which is helping us to meet our nutritional needs, while protecting us against lifestyle-related diseases.  They are also more economic and by cutting back on meat and replacing it with legumes, you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and leave a smaller carbon footprint [2].

Despite these amazing benefits, legumes are still often overlooked.  Let us look at some of the barriers to consuming legumes as part of our daily diet [1]:

Have you ever heard the nursery rhyme…

It may cause gastrointestinal discomfort

Beans, beans, the musical fruit

The more you eat, the more you toot

The more you toot, the better you feel

So let’s have beans with every meal

Beans and lentils are high in a beneficial type of carbohydrate called oligosaccharides.  It is not broken down and digested in the small intestine, but rather travels to our large intestine where our good gut bacteria feed on it.  This will cause gas, which is the by-product [3].

If we go from eating no beans or lentils, to all of a sudden eating large portions a day, it may contribute more to gassiness.  But not to worry, these side-effects will usually subside when we consume them on a more regular basis.

There are ways that we can reduce the oligosaccharides and improve digestion:

  • When using dried beans, cover with water in a pot and bring to a boil.  Remove them from the stove and let them soak for 24 hours.  The next day, discard the soaking water and cook them in fresh water.
  • Ensure that when you cook dried beans that they have been thoroughly cooked.
  • When using canned beans, rinse and drain them well.  Canned beans also have fewer oligosaccharides because they are very well cooked.  They are also more convenient to use if you do not have time to cook dried beans from scratch.
  • Start adding small portions of beans and lentils to your meal, for example 2 tablespoons, and gradually work your way up to the desired amount.  This will allow your gut bacteria to become adjusted to the fibre.
  • You can start with smaller legumes, like red lentils and split peas.  They are easier to digest and produce less gas.

It is not a familiar ingredient

Another reason why people are not consuming as many beans is that they are unfamiliar with how to prepare, flavour and incorporate them into their dietary patterns.  People may also be unfamiliar with the health benefits and thus see no need to consume them.

It takes time to cook

The soaking process and long cooking time of dried beans are not only time-consuming but contribute to expensive fuel consumption [1].  If you prefer using dried beans, an electric pressure cooker will be an amazing investment!

Tinned beans can also be healthy and convenient choices instead of dried beans.  Make sure you rinse and drain them well to reduce the sodium and gas-forming qualities.

Lentils, especially red lentils, cook for a much shorter period than other bean varieties.  Bean sprouts are also a great way to add legumes to your meals.

Tips to boost legume intake:

  • Add beans to your morning toast.
  • Add chickpeas, black beans or lentils to a salad or nourish bowl.
  • Serve peas or a four-bean salad as a side dish.
  • Enjoy bean curries, lentil dahl, stews and soups.
  • Use bean-based spreads like hummus in a wrap, on a sandwich or as a snack with veggie sticks.  You can also opt for a simple peanut butter sandwich.
  • Take traditional meals like cottage pie or spaghetti bolognese and swop the mince for lentils!

Now that you have learned about the amazing benefits of legumes, go ahead and get cooking! 

Enjoy!

[1] H. Vorster, J. Badham and C. Venter, “An introduction to the revised food-based dietary guidelines for South Africa,” S Afr J Clin Nutr, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. S1-S164, 2013.

[2] M. Rossi, Eat Yourself Healthy, Italy: Penguin Random House UK, 2019.

[3] B. Davis and R. Shah, Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families, Florida: Health Communications, Inc, 2020.

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