Let me start by saying this is not an article about blood pressure. Believe or not the word "pulse" has a meaning other than the beating of your heart. In nutrition, the word "pulse" is derived from the latin word "puls" which means thick soup or potage, and refers to the dry seed of the legume family. You probably know them better as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas.
There are four types of pulses:
-dried beans (pinto, kidney, navy)
-dried peas (yellow, green)
-lentils (red, green)
Pulses differ from soybeans and peanuts because they contain virtually no fat. They have enormous health benefits thanks to their fiber and protein content, and the good news is... they are cheap! We have all been told that legumes in general are an important part of a well-balanced diet, but knowing how to incorporate them in your diet can be difficult.
"Pulses are not only beneficial for our health, but they also benefit the planet!"
Before getting into the how, let's first review the health benefits
- They contain a high amount of nutrients for a low amount of calories
Pulses are naturally high in vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, phosphorus, folate and other b-vitamins. They are also high in protein and low in calories and fat. Combined with grains, nuts, seeds, or dairy, they make an excellent source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans.
- They are high in fiber
One of the benefits of eating pulses is that they contain a high amount of soluble and insoluble fiber. The former helps decrease cholesterol while the latter helps maintain a healthy gut. Insoluble fiber moves through your body undigested, and finally gets fermented in the gut by our good bacteria. A healthy gut is important for the prevention and management of many chronic diseases as well as colon cancer. Fiber also helps keep you full for longer, which can help in weight loss and weight management. There is also some evidence that feeding our gut bacteria with fiber helps with weight regulation. The science is still young, but so far it has looked promising. A recent episode of The Nature of Things explores the connection between the body's microbiome and weight. Check out the episode here.
- They help regulate blood sugar levels
The starches found in pulses are harder to break down in our bodies, and therefore digest at a much slower rate. Pulses are therefore considered low glycemic index because they prevent our blood sugar from rising quickly. This can be beneficial for the prevention and management of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- They are incredibly versatile
- They are environmentally friendly
Pulses are not only beneficial for our health, but they also benefit the planet! Legume plants contain bacteria that produce nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow and compete with other plants. When the plant dies, the nitrogen compounds help fertilize the soil and create an environment where new plants can grow.
Here are some tips on how to prepare dried pulses
- Wash dried pulses thoroughly and soak overnight. Changing the water often helps improve their digestibility
- Dried lentils or split peas do not need to be soaked overnight because they are smaller
- Boil dried pulses in fresh water
- Remove the foam that comes to the surface while boiling
- Cook until the pulse becomes tender (it may take 1-2 hours). Cooking time will depend on the type of pulse so it's a good idea to check the package
Of course, to save time you can buy canned pulses which have been pre-cooked so you can skip any soaking and boiling.
How to incorporate pulses into your diet:
One of the reasons why people do not eat pulses more often is due to the undesirable temporary side effects they can cause to our gut. Here are some tips to lessen the digestive side effects:
- Smaller pulses are easier to digest and tend to cause fewer side effects. If pulses are a new addition to your diet, start with lentils or split peas.
- Rinsing canned pulses well and eating only a ⅓ of a cup at a time can also cut down on any embarrassing side effects. But don't worry! The more you eat beans, the fewer side effects you will feel. Our gut bacteria become used to the high amounts of fiber and your body adjusts.
- If you are prone to feeling bloated or gassy, avoid eating anything sweet like fruit or other desserts at a meal where you are eating pulses. This tend to make gas production worse.
- Of course, if you really feel uncomfortable eating pulses, consider using Beano to help relieve your digestive symptoms.
To encourage the whole family to like them:
- Try mixing them with the meat in your favourite recipes. Rather than change a recipe completely, try using half the amount of meat and replace the other half with pulses. This works particularly well in a Shepherd's pie, Sloppy Joes, chili, meatloaf or hamburgers.
- Mix them into your grain product. Rice and beans is a traditional favourite in many cultures around the world. Quinoa and bean salads are also very popular these days
- Try interesting flavors from around the world to awake your senses. Indian flavors like coconut, cumin and coriander go very well with the flavors of pulses. So does the spicy flavors of Spanish foods and those from Mexico.
- Don't salt the water when soaking beans. Doing so will result in harder, and possibly inedible, beans. Instead, add salt after reconstituting the dry beans and midway through the cooking process.
- Use canned pulses to save time.
If you are looking for some inspiration, try these quick and easy recipes to get started:
Co-written with Jenna West, dietetic intern
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A 2000 study in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention showed that legumes, yellow-orange vegetables and cruciferous vegetables are linked with a lower risk of prostate cancer. The study, which included more than 1,600 men, didn't show a link between tomatoes and fruits and prostate cancer risk, though.
A study of more than 64,000 middle-aged Chinese women showed that eating legumes -- especially soybeans -- is linked with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes. The study, published in 2008 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the more legumes a woman ate, the lower her risk of diabetes.
The more beans you eat a week, the lower your risk of heart disease. At least that's the finding of a 2001 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showing that eating legumes at least four times a week reduces coronary heart disease risk 22 percent more than eating legumes fewer than one time a week. The findings are based on 9,632 people who were part of the First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Epidemiologic Follow-up Study.
A number of studies has shown a link between legume consumption and a lower risk for colorectal adenomas, which are known to be a precursor for colorectal cancer. One study, published in 2006 in the Journal of National Black Nurses' Association, showed that eating legumes -- like lentils, split peas and dried beans -- is linked with a lower risk of colorectal adenomas in African-American adults. And in a 2006 study in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that people who added the most dried beans to their diets had a lower risk of recurrence of advanced colorectal adenomas, compared with those who ate the fewest dried beans.
Eating beans every day could help to lower total cholesterol levels, according to a Journal of Nutrition study. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that all it takes is eating a half-cup of cooked dry beans daily. The study included 80 adults -- with ages ranging from 18 to 55 -- who were either healthy or who were at risk for metabolic syndrome. Half of the study participants ate the beans for 12 weeks, while the other half had chicken soup for 12 weeks. By the end of the study period, people who ate the beans had lower cholesterol than those assigned to eat the chicken soup, the USDA reported.
A study published this year in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging showed that eating fewer legumes and vegetables is linked with a higher risk of cognitive decline among elderly Chinese people who are illiterate, compared with those who ate more vegetables and legumes. The research included analysis of 5,691 people ages 65 and older who were illiterate and part of the Chinese Longitudinal Health Longevity Study.
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