Dietitians Dish: Facts about legumes

Jami Martin

By Jami Martin

What are legumes? They are seeds that dry in their pod. Legumes include beans (kidney, pinto, Lima, cannellini, black), lentils, peas (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, purplehull peas or cow peas) and nuts. Some may refer to them as dried beans, which include canned, frozen or cooked beans varieties.

In 2005, United States Department of Agriculture - Dietary Guidelines included beans as a subgroup of vegetables.

It is recommended that a person eat three cups of legumes per week to assist with meeting total recommended vegetable servings.

In addition, if used as a lean protein source or meat substitute, then it falls into the subgroup of meat group called dried beans and peas, as a plant-based protein.

Legumes are plentiful in nutrients that offer them the flexibility to fall into either category.

Legumes can stand alone or be used to prepare lean dishes, such as soups, stews, salads, dips, casseroles and sandwich spreads.

Benefits of beans include protein, iron, folate, potassium, manganese, copper, magnesium, calcium, complex carbohydrate, no cholesterol, low in sodium, low in fat, low in saturated fat, low in calories, rich in phytonutrients and gluten free.

Legumes offer a great amount of fiber, soluble and insoluble, which can help in the management of weight, diabetes, lowering cholesterol and aiding in colon health. As you add more fiber and increase beans and legumes in your diet, make increases gradually, drink plenty of water or fluids and exercise regularly to help your gastrointestinal system handle the increase in dietary fiber.

To prepare legumes from dry form, it's recommended that you change the water several times during soaking, and to avoid using the soaking water to cook the beans as the water will have absorbed some of the gas-producing indigestible sugars.

Take note: Beans do not have to be cooked from their dried form, especially when using them in a pinch. You can find beans both canned and in the freezer sections of your grocery store. If you are monitoring your sodium intake for hypertension, heart failure, heart disease or general health, canned food items can be drained and rinsed to remove about 40 percent of their sodium, especially when you are unable to find, or do not have access to, canned goods labeled "no salt added."

Do you follow a diet based on exchange lists, such as in the diabetic or weight management plans? A cup serving of legumes counts as one starch or carbohydrate choice and one lean meat choice.

Here are a few resources for legume recipes - www.vegetablewithmore.com; eatingwell.com, search: beans; and diabetes.org, click: food and health, search: legumes and beans. So you can be on your way to meeting your three cups per week.

Jami Martin is a registered and licensed dietitian. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.