Legumes provide a range of essential nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins. They are:
- An economical dietary source of good quality protein and are higher in protein than most other plant foods. Legumes have about twice the protein content of cereal grains.
- Generally low in fat, virtually free of saturated fats and contain no cholesterol. Soybeans and peanuts are the exception, with significant levels of mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid.
- Rich in energy-giving carbohydrates, with a low glycemic index rating for blood glucose control.
- A good source of B-group vitamins (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium.
- Low in sodium – sodium content of canned legumes can be reduced by up to 41% if the product is drained and rinsed.
- Abundant in fibre, including both insoluble and soluble fibre, plus resistant starch for colonic health benefits.
- Contain phytonutrients (e.g. isoflavones, lignans, protease inhibitors). Soy beans are particularly high in phytoestrogens, with research over the last 20 years linking soy foods and/or phytoestrogens to a reduced risk of certain cancers including breast and prostate cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and problems associated with menopause.
- Gluten free – as such, legumes are suitable for people with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Legumes contain relatively low quantities of the essential amino acid methionine (which is found in higher amounts in grains). Grains, on the other hand, contain relatively low quantities of the essential amino acid lysine, which legumes contain. This is why some vegetarian cultures – in order to get a good balance of amino acids needed for growth and repair – combine their diet of legumes with cereal grains. Common examples of such combinations are dhal with rice in India, beans with corn tortillas in Mexico, tofu with rice in Asia and peanut butter with bread in the USA and Australia.
A table comparing the nutrient content of different types of legumes can be downloaded here.
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