With over 13,000 different species, legumes are one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world. Their satisfying, earthy and sometimes sweet flavor add color, texture and nutrients to your plate. Within the legume family, pulses make up a group of high fiber, high protein plants. Pulses refer only to the dried seed portion of the plant, such as dried peas, chickpeas and lentils. While they are high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein and fiber, these little guys can be rather troublesome at times. In this post, we will talk about the pros and cons to pulses and legumes, and how to mitigate some of the discomfort associated with their consumption.
The Health Benefits of Pulses
Pulses are a good source of many nutrients, including lecithin and choline, which supports fat digestion. They have calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and several B vitamins, including folate. Most range from 17-25% protein (higher than grains, eggs and most meats) and have little to zero fat. They are also high in carbohydrates and often have two to three times more carbs than protein per serving. We’re not afraid of carbohydrates, but that’s something to be aware of if you’re currently following a low-carb diet. Portion size matters!
Pulses are high in antioxidants, especially richly colored beans. They can help regulate colon function, lower blood pressure and prevent constipation. Since they’re digested slowly, they cause only a very slow, gradual rise in blood sugar, meaning they’re great for keeping blood sugar stable.
From chickpeas to lentils to split peas, there are many types of pulses to choose from. They store well and make great pantry staples to have on hand for last minute meals. While it’s easy to find them pre-cooked in the canned goods section of the grocery store, try buying the dry, uncooked version to increase nutrient density and save a few dollars. They are typically unrefined, meaning they haven’t been gassed, preserved, colored and so on.
Pulses and the Environment
Pulses aren’t just good for your health; they’re good for the environment, too. Pulses have nitrogen-fixing properties that can improve the fertility of soil over time, leading to improvements in farmland productivity. These plants are also very water efficient. When compared to cattle and poultry farming, pulses use just a fraction of the water it takes to raise a chicken, lamb or cow. Think of how much water could be saved over time if everyone substituted pulses for meat at least once a week!
But What About Anti-nutrients?
Yes, it’s true that legumes and pulses are full of macro and micronutrients. However, the question remains… How available are these nutrients for your body to use them? Like grains, legumes contain considerable amounts of phytates and lectins, both of which are anti-nutrients. Plants developed anti-nutrients as a mechanism of protection to help prevent wild animals from eating them. Crazy as it sounds, but plants don’t want to be eaten; they just want to reproduce.
Phytates bind to minerals like calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium and create a compound that is not digestible. When this compound gets to your small intestine (where nutrients are absorbed), your body is not able to absorb most of the minerals due to these phytates.
Now, to be fair, all vegetables contain anti-nutrients, but that’s no reason to stop eating veggies. Their anti-nutrient quantities are much lower and they also have far more minerals than most legumes and pulses. This means that the odds of your body accessing and absorbing minerals from vegetables are much higher. On top of that, certain kinds of vegetable preparation can also remove a good portion of the phytates, like peeling starchy veggies. Fortunately, cooking and soaking can help make minerals in legumes more accessible, too. More on that in a moment.
Another more commonly known issue with legumes is intestinal discomfort. Most of the discomfort and flatulence related to beans comes from their oligosaccharides, which are fermentable compounds composed of 3-5 sugar molecules. (You can learn more about oligosaccharides and FODMAPs here.) Oligosaccharides are linked together in such a way that the body can’t digest or absorb them. Bacteria in the small intestine then break them down, and a by-product of this process is, well, gas. Just a heads up – navy beans and lima beans are the highest in these oligosaccharides. You can reduce oligosaccharides by properly cooking or sprouting beans.
Pulse Preparation: Maximize Nutrients, Minimize Trouble
While you can purchase most legumes in cans, cooking your own is more cost-effective and adds an extra nutrient boost because you’ll have control of the beans’ cooking time and temperature. Cooking your own legumes can actually produce three times the nutritional density than buying a precooked, canned version. 
With the exception of lentils, soaking legumes for 12-24 hours can help those new to beans digest them while also decreasing the cooking time. Simply soak them, discard the water and cook.
Adding fat when cooking beans can help reduce flatulence  — many classic recipes like hummus, pork and beans, and refried beans all contain fat. This is something many cultures figured out a long time ago. Likewise, salt can aid in the digestion of beans (as it does with all foods). Add salt after your beans are finished cooking. You can also try incorporating other digestion-supporting herbs and spices like cumin, fennel and ginger.
Another thing to remember — legumes are actually seeds. And since they’re seeds, they can sprout. This not only looks cool, but can actually increase the nutritional value of the bean and improve its digestibility, too. You can find and purchase bean sprouts at many grocery stores, or you can sprout them yourself at home.
When To Eat Pulses
Given the information above, and considering every person is unique, it’s important for you to make the decision whether or not you’d like to include pulses in your diet, and if so, how much. While they are high in many macro and micronutrients, the bioavailability of those nutrients may be limited by the presence of anti-nutrients.
If prepared and cooked properly, you can bypass some of the issues and reap the full benefits of pulses. They make a delicious and satisfying addition to any meal, especially if served alongside a big plate of veggies. Here are a few of our favorite legume-based recipes that you can try tonight:
What’s your favorite way to cook with pulses and legumes? Share your recipes and comments below!
 Wood, Rebecca. The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 2010. Print.
 Murray, Michael T., Joseph E. Pizzorno, and Lara Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria, 2005. Print.