If someone were to tell you of a food that is tasty, filling, rich in protein and low in fat, contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, dietary fibers, antioxidants, has been proven to be beneficial to your health, is easy to incorporate into many dishes and is even affordable – wouldn’t you like to find out what it was?

Legumes – a pleasure to make your acquaintance

Legumes are members of a diverse and wide family of plants that are all characterized by a pod (legum) containing seeds that are highly nutritious and beneficial to our health.

They exist in a wide range of shapes, colors, flavors and varieties, such as split peas, chick peas, soy beans, lentils of all colors, Egyptian fava beans, split dried fava beans, all types of beans (mung beans, green beans, white beans, spotted beans, black beans, azuki beans), lupin and black-eyed peas. Other members of the legume family are peanuts and carobs.

Legumes – a rich source of protein

Protein, one of the essential nutrients, is critical to a healthy and well-balanced diet and is key to our health. Protein plays a part in a variety of processes that take place in the body, as a building stone of body tissue, enzymes, digestive juices, hormones and antibodies. Protein also serves as a connector that carries essential nutrients to the areas of the body where they are needed. It is essential to growth and proper development in childhood and adolescence, and to tissue regeneration through all stages of life (e.g. in the healing of injuries and burns).

Legumes are leaders of the plant world, as they contain more protein than any other plant. Legumes contain more protein than grains. They even have double the amount of protein that is found in quinoa and are therefore an excellent source of protein in the diets of vegetarians and vegans, who do not consume protein from animal sources.

Due to their impressive protein content, nutritional guidelines worldwide recognize the importance of legumes in a diversified and healthy diet and classify legumes under two categories – proteins and vegetables. The new guidelines recommend the consumption of legumes as a source of high-quality protein, not only for vegetarians, but also for meat-eaters as part of the protein group.

Soy – the spearhead of plant-based proteins

Soy is a member of the legume family. Soy beans contain the highest protein content of all plants (close to 40%). Proteins from animal sources (meat/ chicken/ fish, dairy products/ eggs) usually contain complete protein. A complete protein is a protein that provides all of the amino acids that the human body cannot self-synthesize in sufficient quantities.

Most plant-based proteins do not contain all of the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities, with the exception of a few plants that contain a complete protein with a high nutritional value, among which are soy beans.

Soy protein is a complete and high-quality protein that contains all of the essential amino acids in the quantities that are required for the human body.

Quality combination of legumes and grains

Legumes are rich in the lysine essential amino acid, but low on the methionine essential amino acid. In opposition, the grain family is rich in methionine, but low on lysine.This is the basis for the recommendation to consume carbohydrates (grains) together with legumes in order to obtain a high-quality complete protein. In the past, it was believed that the combination has to be consumed in the same meal, however today we know that it is enough to eat legumes and grains on the same day in order to enjoy a high-quality protein.

A great low-fat combination that helps us feel full

Legumes have a winning composition that is beneficial to any diet – a high-quality protein that helps us feel full, complex carbohydrates that are slowly broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream, thereby further contributing to the feeling of fullness, and an abundance of dietary fibers that are beneficial to the health of the heart and the digestive system, the balancing of diabetes and to weight loss processes.

Modest in size but bursting at the seams with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants

Legumes are a cornucopia of minerals and vitamins, including iron, zinc and B vitamins, magnesium, potassium and calcium that are beneficial to the health and proper functionality of the body.

Legumes also contain a variety of antioxidants. Numerous studies have demonstrated the ability of antioxidants to assist the body in battling the devastating effects of free radicals and even protect against the development of chronic diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, cataract and even slowing aging processes.

Legumes are also well-liked in the world of research and medicine

The world of medicine, too, praises legumes and their nutritional benefits. Recent studies link the consumption of legumes with reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes. Other studies consider legumes as integral to a menu that aims to balance diabetes and reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.

In view of their substantial nutritional benefits and in order to encourage their consumption, the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has approved the posting of a health claim on legume packages, stating that: “diets containing legumes may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases”.a study that examined the consumption habits of various peoples in relation to the risk of heart disease found that extensive consumption of vegetables, legumes and fish, as is the case in the Mediterranean diet, significantly reduces the risk of heart disease. The study attributes to legumes a contribution of more than 80% to this effect.

Mind the gas…

Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that eating legumes may cause some discomfort in the digestive system. this stems mainly from a component known as oligosaccharide. The digestive system is unable to properly break it down and as it reaches the colon it undergoes fermentation by the colonic bacteria. The product of this fermentation is gas.

the good news are that there are a number of simple methods to prevent this annoyance, such as soaking the legumes in water and frequently replacing the soaking water, throwing out the water of the initial cooking and using gas absorbing spices, such as cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, aniseed and caraway. Another highly recommended method is sprouting the legumes. Sprouting increases the nutritional values of the legumes and reduces the production of gas in the intestines.

In any event…

If you refrain from eating legumes to avoid the digestive discomfort, you will be glad to learn that lentils are easy to digest and in most people they do not cause any digestive symptoms.

A rainbow of lentils

In Israel, five colors of lentils are commonly consumed: yellow, orange, green, brown and black. The various types differ mostly in the required cooking time and in their post-cooking texture.Lentils are low in fat and rich in protein and dietary fibers, B vitamins and essential minerals, such as:

Iron that is essential to the production of red blood cells, metabolism and brain development.

Calcium that plays a key role in building bones and teeth, transmission of neural stimuli, contraction of the skeletal muscles and the heart, blood coagulation, hormone secretion and regulation of the blood pressure.

Zinc that is essential to the functionality of the immune system, the activity of numerous enzymes, the healing of wounds and the health of the skin and hair.

Magnesium that is essential to building bones, muscle contraction, transmission of neural stimuli and the activation of enzymes in the process of energy generation.

Chick peas – Israel’s best loved legume

Hummus, a food found in almost every Israeli household, is made of chick peas, tahini, oil and spices. Like all other legumes, hummus too has a relatively high protein content (17-23 grams per 100 grams of hummus). Chick peas are an excellent source of dietary fibers and contribute to the proper functionality of the digestive system as well as to a feeling of fullness.

Hummus supplies soluble dietary fibers, B vitamins, minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and potassium and provides more than twice the iron that is available in other legumes. Due to this nutritional makeup, chick peas have beneficial effects on the heart, blood sugar levels and even on the slowing down of the aging process. Studies show that meals containing chick peas improve various health indicators, such as insulin and cholesterol levels, and affect our feeling of fullness.

Chick peas contain little oil and offer a winning combination of protein and dietary fibers that contribute to a prolonged feeling of fullness.

Recommendation – incorporate legumes into your daily menu

In view of the substantial benefits of the legume family, the new guidelines recognize the importance of legumes in a diversified and healthy diet and recommend the consumption of legumes as a source of high-quality protein, not only for vegetarians, but also for meat-eaters, as part of the protein group.

Legumes are very versatile: they can be served as an interesting addition to rice, as a filling component in a salad, as an ingredient of a the stew or a thickening agent for the soup, as a protein dish for vegetarians as well as a snack, a spread or a dip.

The recommended quantity is 3 cups of legumes per week.

Nutrition Team, Osem Group