Published at 2021, December 22th
Why should you eat legumes and include lentils, beans or peas in your diet? In this article, we share 5 reasons – ranging from the money you’ll be able to save to the ecological impact you will (not) have.
Our diets are at the centre of many of the social injustices (check the production of avocados) or environmental effects (discover the impact of coffee production) our globalised world is currently facing.
Together with new agricultural policies that favour organic production, new products – with lower carbon footprints – arriving at the food market such as lab meat, insect foods or vertically-grown veggies, our eating habits are definitely changing.
Among the foods that are on the rise, there is one that’s particularly relevant for the climate conversation: legumes. This food category, which includes lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans, is at the heart of the diet of many peoples around the world.
But in Western countries, these foods are not always popular. In fact, their production and consumption have even declined considerably over the last century in most industrialised countries.
Yet legumes are foods with multiple benefits, and we would all have an interest in consuming them more. So here are 5 reasons why we should be eating more legumes:
1 – Legumes are foods rich in protein, fibers and nutrients
First of all, from a nutritional point of view, legumes are extremely interesting since they are a very balanced food that contains a lot of protein and complex carbohydrates. 100 g of green lentils have nearly 20 to 25 g of protein, as much as an equivalent serving of meat.
It is therefore a practical food if one is looking for protein ingestion without resorting to animal protein, which is often richer in saturated fats – besides leading to more pollution and environmental impacts.
For vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians who would like to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products, legumes are, therefore, an ideal choice to consume enough protein.
They have, however, one downside: legumes do not contain all the amino acids (the constituent elements of proteins) necessary for our needs.
That’s why they should be consumed alongside cereals, which contain the exact amino acids legumes don’t (and vice versa). Worry not too much though: this combination is rarely a problem since we’re used to consuming a lot of cereals (e.g. bread, pasta, rice).
Legumes are also rich in carbohydrates and fibre. 100 g of red beans have more than 15 g of fibre, an essential macronutrient often lacking on our daily plates.
A 2021 paper from Tulli et al. published on Nutrients, a peer-reviewed journal of human nutrition, suggests whole grain (WG) intake is inversely related to the risk of type2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and several cancer types.
Also, legumes contain soluble fibre, which slows down the absorption of sugars and certain fats and thus reduces the risks of getting the health problems mentioned earlier.
Finally, legumes are also rich in micronutrients. Green lentils contain a lot of iron. White beans are rich in manganese, magnesium and vitamin B1. And chickpeas are rich in phosphorus and vitamins B9. Each type of legume provides different micronutrients useful to the body, which are found too little in our diet in general.
2 – Legumes are low in fats and simple sugars
The other benefit of legumes is that they are low in saturated fats and simple sugars.
And that’s good because it is precisely these nutrients that we consume too much of in our modern diets, causing a number of chronic health problems that have increased sharply in recent years.
Saturated fats, which are very present in products of animal origin (cheese, fat meats, sausages) lead to cardiovascular problems, while the ubiquity of simple or refined sugars causes diabetes problems and obesity.
Integrating legumes into our diets is therefore a simple way to enrich them without adding these problematic nutrients. Replacing some of the meat we might eat with legumes allows us to swap a protein intake high in fat for a healthier protein intake.
Besides, integrating a share of lentils or peas into our meals in addition to cereals slows down the absorption of carbohydrates, and therefore lowers the glycemic index of a meal. It’s a smart (and easy) way to reduce chronic exposure to high levels of glucose in the blood, which contribute to the development of pathologies such as type 2 diabetes.
In short, from a health point of view, legumes have plenty of benefits.
3 – Beans, chickpeas or lentils: the allies in the transition to sustainable agriculture
Legumes are also an ideal food to help transition to more sustainable agriculture. First, legume cultivation generates very little CO2, putting legumes amongst the least CO2-emitting foods.
In terms of the amount of protein they contain, legumes are among the most interesting foods from an ecological point of view. If we succeed in integrating more legumes into our diet, replacing some of the animal proteins we consume, we could drastically reduce CO2 emissions from agriculture.
This transition to a more plant-based diet is certainly the simplest change to implement to quickly and significantly reduce our carbon footprint.
But lentils, peas and other beans are not only of interest from a climatic point of view. Indeed, these plants are among the few crops able to capture and fix nitrogen from the air. Specifically, it is the rhizobium bacteria that live in symbiosis with the roots of legumes that fixes nitrogen.
But why does nitrogen fixation matter? Because it is the main fertiliser used for plant growth and without it there would be no agriculture as we know it today.
Why? Because there is not enough nitrogen available in the soil for plants to grow big fast. As a result, our agricultural system relies on the Haber Bosch process, a very energy-demanding process (responsible for ~2% of global greenhouse gas emissions). Besides, when these fertilisers runoff to watercourses they lead to further environmental problems such as algae proliferation.
All this to say… it is interesting to find solutions that fix nitrogen in the soil in order to limit the need for external fertiliser applications and legumes, alongside crop rotation methods, help meet this need.
For various ecological reasons, it is therefore particularly interesting to integrate more legumes into our agriculture… and therefore into our plates!
4 – Why eat legumes? Because they are cheap and practical
Legumes are very cheap foods thanks to simple cultivation methods. At the same time, they also come from strong, resistant plants less susceptible to climate variations, which keeps the production costs of peas, beans or lentils quite low.
Even in organic farming, legumes can be found at very low prices, between 3 and 6 euros per kg. This puts legumes in line with or below the majority of vegetables and cereals, even though they sometimes contain as much protein as meat or fish, which are easily 10 times more expensive.
Another advantage is that legumes are rather practical. While dry they last for very long periods (years) without perishing. And on the cooking side, some varieties (such as coral lentils) are quick and very easy to cook – besides being very tasty!
Other sorts of lentils (and legumes in general) require a little more time as they must be soaked and cooked for a long time. To save repeating the hassle, preparing a substantial dose and freezing a portion can be a good choice. Or in the last case – with the waste problem nonetheless -, canned legumes are an even easier and more practical option.
5 – Trendy legumes in the kitchen
Finally, contrary to popular belief, legumes are far from being tasteless. Quite the contrary.
First, the legume family is rich and very varied. There are dozens of different varieties of lentils, with very different tastes: puy green lentils, beluga black lentils, coral lentils, yellow or brown lentils, red beans, white beans, partridge eye beans, chickpeas, or split peas, yellow or green, as well as dozens of endemic species, all over the world…
These different kinds of legumes have different textures and tastes: coral lentils are soft, almost sweet, with a melting texture that lends itself well to soups and purees. The black lentil almost resembles caviar, with a slightly firm texture and a hazelnut taste.
Legumes can be cooked in hundreds of ways and we can get particularly inspired by culinary cultures where legumes are a central part of people’s diets: such as in South Asia, the Middle East or South America where dishes such as lentil dahl or chickpeas curry are common.
Moreover, modern gastronomy also seizes legumes and highlights them with great creativity. Lentil falafels, lentil risotto, bean cream, pakora-style chickpea flour doughnuts are some examples…
So here’s one more reason why you should eat legumes: there’s a great number of (tasty) ways to cook them! Besides, as we’ve seen they’re also healthy, nutritious, ecological and cheap.
So… to bean or not to bean, that’s the question.