Spring 2013 Nutrition Matters
April 19, 2013 By Rosie Schwartz, RD
The perks of pulses

Unsung heroes, dried beans and peas have blood cholesterol benefits, and can help with weight management and heart health, too!

According to a bounty of scientific research, one of the smartest things you can do for your health is to get beaned—dried beans and peas, that is.

These foods, which are known as pulses, offer a wealth of health benefits, especially for people with diabetes. They are packed with fibre (especially the soluble type with their blood cholesterol and blood glucose benefits), can help with weight management and heart health, and are cheap, to boot. Yet we simply don’t eat enough of them.

Pulses, which are better known as legumes, include assorted dried beans such as kidney and lima beans, along with lentils, and dried peas like split peas and chickpeas. Besides fibre, they supply vital nutrients such as protein; minerals like calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc; and B vitamins. Low in fat, they contain some carbohydrate. According to the Canadian Diabetes Association’s (CDA's) Beyond the Basics guide, one cup of legumes (beans and lentils) provides 15 grams of available carbs, says Joanne Lewis, diabetes education manager for the CDA.

An inexpensive source of protein, pulses have long been regarded as a cheap  substitute for meat. While most pulses lack certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein), you’ll meet your protein requirements if you eat them with other foods such as whole grains.

For health's sake, take your pulse

If you have diabetes or are concerned about developing it, you may have avoided  pulses because of their carbohydrate content. But if you look at them in terms of the glycemic index (GI), which measures how much a carbohydrate-rich food raises blood glucose levels compared to a standard food, they offer many benefits thanks to their low GI. Research shows that eating them regularly is a smart meal choice.

A three-month study, conducted by Dr. David Jenkins and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, compared the effect on people with type 2 diabetes of eating one cup of legumes daily versus whole-wheat foods. The research, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that eating more legumes both improved blood glucose control and reduced the risk of heart disease. Thomas M.S. Wolever, a CDA–affiliated researcher and a professor at the University of Toronto, is studying how legumes affect the blood glucose (sugar) levels of women with gestational diabetes. His study, published in the journal Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, linked low-GI foods with a lower blood sugar reading following meals.

One third of the elderly population does not consume enough protein. Eating pulses is one solution.” – Thomas M .S. Wolever, researcher

Other research has found that eating pulses improves blood sugar control over the  long term. Plus, they’re the leading source of saponins, which lower blood cholesterol by attaching themselves to cholesterol, so less of it is absorbed by the body. Consider that diabetes is linked to a higher risk of heart disease, and you have one more reason why pulses belong in your meals.

Beans, peas and lentils also make you feel fuller and allow you to stop eating, which can help with weight management—important for preventing diabetes and controlling your blood sugar levels.

“Eating one cup of beans and peas a day isn’t difficult. There is a great variety of pulses available. You can eat a different one every day.”Joanne Lewis, diabetes educator manager, Canadian Diabetes Association

Dealing with picky eaters?

Add pulses to favourite dishes at a slow pace. Purée small amounts of beans and peas and use in soups and sauces. For instance, mix puréed kidney beans or lentils with a little tomato pasta sauce. Then add it back into the rest of the sauce. Gradually increase the proportion of pulses and eventually leave them whole.

Did You Know?

Because of the soluble fibre they contain, pulses have a low glycemic index (GI )—a measure of how much a carbohydrate-rich food raises blood glucose levels compared to a standard food like white bread. Eating them regularly can have at least five health benefits, including lowering your risk of getting type 2 diabetes. Read more in “The Glycemic Index”.

A rising culinary star

In our multicultural society, dishes that include pulses are becoming commonplace, and even star chefs like Michael Smith are including them in their menus. While pulses are ideal for cold-weather soups and stews, their versatility also makes them perfect for spring and summer. They partner wonderfully with seasonings from every cuisine, and can be part of any course of any meal. Zesty dips, hearty soups; salads tossed with a variety of ingredients from greens to meat, fish and poultry; pastas; main course stews; and even cakes can be made with assorted beans, peas and lentils. They’re also ideal for meatless meals. And because they’re gluten-free, they’re a nutritious option for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that’s more common in people with diabetes. Throw in the fact that they are delicious, and you have every reason to enjoy pulses this spring!

LET’S FACE IT: beans cause flatulence for most people. This fact has given rise to many ditties such as “Beans, beans, the musical fruit; the more you eat, the more you toot.” True, their fibre content contributes to increased gas production, but certain preparation techniques can minimize this, as can eating them on a regular basis.

  • If you are cooking varieties that require presoaking, drain the soaking water and use fresh water for cooking.

  • If you're using canned items, drain first and then rinse them well under running water. Not only will you reduce gas production but you will also lessen the sodium content significantly.

  • Lentils and split peas don’t need to be soaked in water before cooking, but if you’re using canned ones, rinse them to reduce sodium.

Take a soak

Quick-soak method: After sorting and rinsing, place dried beans in a large pan or bowl. Cover generously with water. Bring water and beans to a boil and cook for two minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for one hour.

Overnight soaking method: After sorting and rinsing, place dried beans in a large pan or bowl. Cover generously with water. Let stand for eight hours or overnight. If you need to leave the beans for a longer time, change the soaking water to avoid spoilage.

Here are three delicious recipes to tempt your taste buds.

Lentil and Roasted Red Pepper Dip

This recipe is from the e-book Canadian Lentil Recipe Revelations, which contains a host of prize-winning preparations. Serve with veggie sticks or baked tortilla chips.

1 cup (250 mL) red lentils
3 cups (750 mL) water
1 red pepper
1 clove garlic
Juice from 1 medium lemon
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
1 tsp (5 mL) cumin
½ tsp (2 mL) smoked paprika
Salt to taste

Combine lentils and water in a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer while covered until tender but not mushy, about 8 to 12 minutes. Place lentils in a colander to drain any excess water. Allow to cool completely.

Wash and de-seed the red pepper. Cut red pepper into thick strips and lay them out on a baking sheet. Place under broiler until skin bubbles and blackens.

While they are still hot, place pepper strips in an airtight container or bag and let them steam for about 15 minutes (this helps make the skin easier to remove). Peel off the blackened skin and discard it, then place peppers in a food processor with cooled lentils plus garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin and paprika. Blend until smooth. Add a little water if you find it too thick. Add salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate until cooled. Pour dip into a serving bowl and sprinkle with more smoked paprika.

Makes 10 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 13 g carbohydrate, 6 g protein, 2 g total fat, less than 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fibre, 80 mg sodium, 87 calories

Couscous, Chickpea and Vegetable Salad

This recipe, from my book The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada), has been a family favourite for many years.

½ cup (125 mL) couscous, preferably whole wheat
1⁄8 tsp (0.5 mL) salt
1 cup (250 mL) boiling water
1 19-oz./540-mL can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 red pepper, diced
1 cup (250 mL) chopped green onions
1 cup (250 mL) diced tomatoes
1 cup (250 mL) diced cucumber
¾ cup (175 mL) chopped fresh assorted herbs (parsley, cilantro, dill, mint)
2 tbsp (25 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp (25 mL) fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place couscous and salt in a large bowl; pour boiling water over and stir with a fork to  combine. Cover and let sit for 5 minutes, then uncover and fluff with a fork. Allow to cool. Add chickpeas, red pepper, green onions, tomatoes, cucumber, and herbs to the couscous and toss to mix. In a small bowl, mix together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour over couscous mixture and toss to coat evenly with dressing. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow flavours to blend.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 30 g carbohydrate, 7 g protein, 6 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 6 g fibre, 150 mg sodium, 194 calories

© Rosie Schwartz

Black Bean and Corn Salsa

Enjoy this salsa with baked tortilla chips or as a garnish for grilled fish or chicken.

1 19-oz./540-mL can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup (250 mL) cooked corn kernels, fresh or frozen
½ cup (125 mL) chopped red onion
1 medium tomato, diced
1⁄3 cup (75 mL) chopped cilantro
½–1 tsp (2–5 mL) finely chopped jalapeño pepper
3 tbsp (45 mL) fresh lime juice
4 tsp (20 mL) extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

In a medium-sized bowl, combine beans, corn, onion, tomato, cilantro, and jalapeño pepper. In a small bowl, mix together lime juice and olive oil. Pour over vegetables and toss until well coated. Season with salt to taste.

Makes 6 servings

Nutritional breakdown per serving: 23 g carbohydrate, 6 g protein, 4 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 6 g fibre, 140 mg sodium, 143 calories

© Rosie Schwartz

More Articles

  • 9 easy ways to get active

    9 easy ways to get active

    Fit Tip

    Simple solutions to manage your health without joining a gym

    Read more

  • Image of Dr. Diane Donat

    A time of growth


    Consider spring your opportunity to try something new.

    Read more

Keep diabetes research moving forward

Your donation will ensure research never stops – help End Diabetes Now.