The recent draft Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend enhancing dietary variety by increasing the intake of alternatives to meat, including legumes1. Legumes are well-placed to fill this role as they are nutritious, sustainable and inexpensive alternatives. However, while dietitians and journalists talk up the health benefits, it seems we’re not getting the message. So why aren’t Australians eating legumes?
On average Australians eat 18.5 grams of legumes, or a quarter of one serve, per week2. But this average is deceptive because actually most people are not eating any legumes. In 2011, the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council commissioned a survey to track consumption of legumes in Australia which found only one in five Australians eat legumes regularly. Despite health professionals recommending legumes this hasn’t changed since 2009 when the first survey asked this same question. In the 2011 survey, the top three reasons reported for not eating legumes were lack of knowledge of how to prepare them, a poor understanding of the health benefits and concern over side effects such as bloating and flatulence2.
So let’s take a look at these issues.
What is a legume?
Legumes, also called pulses, are from the Fabaceae botanical family. Some Australian-grown legumes include chickpeas, lentils, mung beans and lupin. They can be eaten whole, used as flours in baking, or even sprouted.
What’s so good about legumes?
Legumes are an important part of the Mediterranean Diet, an indication of their part in a healthy dietary pattern. Observational studies suggest regular consumption of legumes is linked to longer life and reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer3,4,5. This correlates with comprehensive reviews of intervention trials that indicate legumes can help manage both cholesterol and blood glucose6,7. In addition, emerging evidence indicates legumes may help in weight management8.
Legumes are one of the most sustainable sources of protein in the world. Although Australian evidence is limited, international studies indicate that legumes use the least land and have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions compared to other sources of protein including meat, eggs and dairy. Legume crops also contribute to sustainable food production by improving soil through nitrogen fixation9,10.
Legumes are also a great bang for your buck as they’re more cost effective than meat or fish11. So bringing down the cost of your family meal is as easy as replacing some meat with kidney beans, lentils or chickpeas.
And if you needed more reasons to add a legume to your day, if you want to buy Aussie-grown, then look no further than your humble legume. Australia grows more than 12 different types of legumes and we are the world’s leading chickpea exporter as well as in the top five producers of faba beans12.
How much do I need?
Aiming for at least two serves of legumes a week is a good start, but evidence indicates people who eat legumes four times or more times a week are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease13.
One serve = 75g or ½ cup cooked beans, peas or lentils.
Aren’t legumes difficult to cook?
Most dried legumes need to be soaked to make them easier to digest and absorb the nutrients. If you need them in a hurry you can opt for a ‘quick soak’ method where you bring them to a boil then let them stand for one hour. Alternatively, use split peas or lentils which don’t need to be soaked at all, just boil them for about 20 minutes or add them directly to your casserole as it cooks.
No time to soak? You can buy canned legumes like kidney beans, chickpeas or lentils which can be added straight into stews, soups or salads. The sodium can be reduced by half just by rinsing them thoroughly14. They even come in single serve sizes which are flavoured or mixed with tuna or vegetables, perfect for work or school.
Won’t they give me gas?
A recent study suggests not everyone gets gas from legumes and most people adjust after about 8 weeks15. So, just like any high fibre food, don’t rush in and eat legumes three times a day. Start off slowly by eating them once a week then gradually eat more, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly.
Gas is caused by the galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) in the legumes. These can be reduced by different preparation methods.
Try these tips to reduce gas:
- Change the water once or twice while they soak.
- When you’re ready to cook, drain the soaked legumes and use fresh water for cooking
- If you’re using canned legumes, rinse them before adding to your meal.
1. NHMRC. Draft Australian Dietary Guidelines for public consultation. 2011.
2. Colmar Brunton. Project Go Grain. 2011
3. Darmadi-Blackberry I, et al. Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(2):217-20.
4. Flight I and Clifton P. Cereal grains and legumes in the prevention of coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of the literature. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;60(10):1145-59
5. Villegas R, Gao Y, Yang G, Li H, Elasy T, Zheng W, and Shu X. Legume and soy food intake and incidence of type 2 diabetes in the Shanghai Women’s Health Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2008;87:162-167
6. Bazzano LA, et al. Non-soy legume consumption lowers cholesterol levels: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2011 Feb;21(2):94-103.
7. Sievenpiper J,et al. Effect of non-oilseed pulses on glycaemic control: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled experimental trials in people with and without diabetes. Diabetologia. 2009;52:1479-1495
8. McCrory MA, et al. Pulse consumption, satiety, and weight management. Adv Nutr. 2010;1(1):17-30.
9. Health Council of the Netherlands. Guidelines for a healthy diet: the ecological perspective. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands, 2011; publication no. 2011/08E.
10. Zentner R, et al. Pulse Crops Improve Energy Intensity and Productivity of Cereal Production in Montana, USA. Soil and Tillage Research. 2004; 77 (2):125–136
11. Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council. Meat and alternative product audit. 2012
12. Pulse Australia
13. Bazzano LA, et al. Legume consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women: NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study.Arch Intern Med. 2001 Nov 26;161(21):2573-8.
14. Duyff RL, et al. Sodium Reduction in canned Beans after draining, rinsing. J Culinary Science and Technology. 2011;9(2):106-112
15. Winham DM, Hutchins AM. Perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption among adults in 3 feeding studies. Nutr J. 2011 Nov 21;10:128.