Loving Legumes

The quick answer:  Legumes are the best-kept secret in nutrition.  Americans need to eat about ten-fold more legumes, about one serving daily.  Learn how to do it and you’ll save your health as well as the pocketbook.


Forget About Calories

It’s been a week since the last post.  Sorry about that.  I made the mistake of starting two home projects while trying to keep up with the Olympics.  Now it’s catch-up time.  But first a quick lesson from a conversation with one of the heroes of our time—a family practice doctor. 

The good doctor and I weren’t acquainted; we met at a wedding.  Waiting for the ceremony to start, I begin asking questions.  In medicine, family practice docs do the heavy lifting but the specialists make the big bucks.  So I have a lot of sympathy for these doctors—I see them as the good guys in medicine. 

Our chat turned to the problem of getting people to change ingrained habits.  Too many people ignore basic problems when they can be easily resolved:  Prediabetics don’t reduce their sugar intake or improve their diet; hypertensives don’t monitor their blood pressure; overweight folks blame their problem on their thyroid, or their genes, rather than what’s on their plate.  It’s a common problem for the docs.

Regarding overweight, the doctor said something that made me sit up straight:  “I tell overweight people to eat less calories and get more exercise,” he said, “but they don’t do it.”

“Oh golly,” I said to myself, “how do I tell this good doctor that calories aren’t the issue, nor is exercise?”  In case you wondered, my logic goes like this:

  1. Eating less calories isn’t the answer to overweight.  There’s a lot of sad history that this doesn’t work.  Hunger is a powerful force.  People will deny themselves food for the few weeks or months of a diet.  But over the years, we’re going to eat until the hunger goes away.  In the long run, hunger always wins and lost weight is regained, plus a little more.
  2. Exercise, though vital to health, isn’t the answer either.  You have to walk a crazy distance just to work off the 400 calories in a 32-oz. soft drink—about six miles.  That’s two hours of walking for a 5-minute snack.  Then there’s the snack you eat after you return home famished.
  3. The key is to eat food that fills us up—turns off the hunger signal—before we eat too many calories.  You can do this by choosing food high in nutrients, including fiber, and low in calories.  Fiber-rich food is very filling.
  4. Which are the high-nutrient, low-calorie, filling foods?  Just about everything that grows on this good earth.  Check the produce section of your local grocery—there are hundreds of choices. 
  5. Sadly, the modern American diet (MAD) is the opposite:  Factory food is high in calories and low in filling nutrients.  It’s easy to eat 1000 calories or more in a fast food meal, for instance.  The Big Mac Value Meal from McDonald’s weights in at 1170 calories but most other factory foods are also calorie dense.
  6. You have to cook if you want to eat real food—or be on good terms with a cook.  If you cook with a variety of plants, adding a little meat for flavor, you’ll fill up before grossing out on calories.  Just remember to avoid the white stuff: sugar, white flour, polished rice, or whatever has the color refined out of it.  For most of us, it’s that simple.

Was I able to explain this to the doctor?  Sadly, no.  Doctors receive little or no nutrition training and because they’re supposed to know everything, it’s awkward for most to admit ignorance.  I started to respond but could see his eyes glazing over.  So I fear he’ll go on, advising patients to eat fewer calories and move more.


I failed with the doc, but the chat does make a good segue to our topic: legumes (including beans, peas, and lentils).  Among the foods high in filling fiber but low in calories, legumes are champions.  Legumes are also champs for value.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The 2005 edition of the USDA’s DGA recommended 3 cups of (cooked) legumes a week.  Later it was revealed that we’re only eating about 1/3 cup per week.  Based on the gap between ideal and real, the 2010 DGA backed down to 1½ cup.  No reason was given for the change so our own goal is to shoot for 3 cups, or about one serving daily.  Here’s a summary of the reasons to eat legumes daily:

  1. Value:  Legumes are flat out the best nutrition buy for the buck. I walked through the bulk bins of the local Sprouts and saw these bargains:  10-bean mix, $1.29/lb; pinto beans $1.49/lb; black beans, $.99/lb; and green split peas, $.99/lb.  Remember these are dry weight so the cost per pound cooked is a fraction, as low as $.30/lb. 
  2. Fiber:  Legumes are a rich source of fiber.  We should get 25-38 grams of fiber daily, depending on age and size.  A ½ cup serving of legumes may contain 7-9 grams of fiber, or about 1/3 of the daily recommendation.
  3. Minerals: Legumes are a good source of minerals, including calcium and magnesium needed for bone health.
  4. Vitamins:  Legumes are a good source for the B complex vitamins, especially folate (folic acid, or B9) which is vital to reducing NTD birth defects.
  5. Shelf life:   A lot of toxic stuff is added to factory food to improve the shelf life.  Good stuff, like omega-3 fats, is removed.  But traditional dried legumes enjoy a naturally long shelf life and are a good way to store food and avoid preservatives.
  6. Your own shelf life:  In the “Food Habits in Later Life Study,” legumes were the only food group with a proven longevity benefit.  For each 20 gram daily intake (about 1/3 of a serving), the risk of death was reduced 6% (for people 70 or older). 

Well, you get the picture.  Legumes, whatever the type, are high in nutrients and low in calories.  Toss some garbanzo or kidney beans in your salads, or enjoy humus on whole grain crackers.  Or try our recipe for Split Pea Soup with Hambone.  If you want to get fancy, try this recipe for Roasted Salmon with Black Bean-Quinoa Salad, from The Bean Institute.  How about that—the humble bean gets its own institute.

Healthy Change #32:  Include a serving of legumes in your five daily vegetables.

Please comment:  How do you eat legumes?  Share a recipe.

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Reader Comments (18)

Fortunately I've always been a huge fan of beans, any type, any size, any dish. Living 5 years in Latin American countries will do that to you. :) I'm trying to instill that same love in my kids and do so by substituting half of any recipe that calls for ground beef with black beans instead. My kids don't notice it as being weird, plus it cuts down on our budget, and frankly they enjoy black beans more than ground beef anyway. Also, refried beans (fat free) are a staple in our house...probably a little high in sodium when I buy it canned, but making refried beans is super easy when done in a crockpot and easily added to many meals or as a snack!

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea

Great post! I've had similar experiences with doctors... the eyes glazing over and all. I just listened to an interesting interview on NPR a while ago about why doctors act like they know everything even when they don't... very interesting. Funny, I had just put some black beans on to soak for dinner tomorrow night before I sat down to read this post.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Yum yum, I love beans! Lately I've been soaking big batches, cooking them in the crockpot, then freezing them in can-sized glass jars (like peanut butter jars, for example). I think my favorite ways to eat beans are hummus, chili (Everyday Food has an awesome veg chil recipe that includes sweet potato), and cold salads with chopped veggies, a little cheese, and some homemade vinaigrette.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Like the others, I sub in balck beans for ground beef in just about everything, but especially Mexican recipes (if they aren't already in it). Soups are another area that get "bean'd".

We aren't fond of lentils at the moment, most likely because we haven't found a good recipe. I'd appreciate it if someone would share one!

Keep up the good message, Skip. ;-)

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLizA

My husband bought a pressure cooker and he makes a different type of legume each week; this week it was a take-off on a Greek yellow split pea soup; lots of dals; roman beans have a great smokiness - just cook, add a carrot, onions, garlic, a hot pepper and some cilantro. He figures if he has something healthy he made on the weekend, it helps when we come home from a busy day at work. Now that it's become a habit, we always have some legume goodness in the fridge!

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTisha

We make black bean burgers from America's Test Kitchen. We love those and I have a quinoa and red bean burger recipe as well. I love them in soups and chilis in the cool weather. My kids are not totally sold on them, but they are starting to like them I think.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMcKenzie

I struggle with the thought that calorie counting is bad advice. I think that as many people start their journey toward a healthier life, discovering which foods are high or low in calories can be a great way to convince them to increase their veggies (and beans!) and decrease the soda/red meat/junk food. I don't buy the calorie is a calorie is a calorie argument, but I do think it is a measurable way for people to improve. My experience has been that many loved ones who are new to the world of healthy eating have success with programs like WW that assign a value to foods - it seems to be simple and doable for them. While I prefer the healthy changes approach, I think healthy changes and lower caloric intake go hand in hand.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMychael-Ann

Hi Mychael-Ann

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on calorie counting vis a vis the healthy changes. In the late 1800s, when nutrition was first being studied, the first thing they learned to do was measure the caloric content of food. So there was this early and lasting focus on calories, simply because that was all scientists knew how to measure at the time. This happens over and over—we focus on what we can measure, rather than what's most critical. Think of the current fixation with our cholesterol metric.

Now we're in the 21st century and our knowledge of nutrition has grown enormously, but not enough to replace calorie counting with a better metric. You're right about calories having a use. It's not so much that calories don't matter, but rather that counting them doesn't seem to provide sufficient motivation for real change. And if you don't change what you eat in a significant way, knowing the total calories of your food doesn't change anything. The Snackwell food products are low in calories, but they can hardly be called healthy.

The weight watcher point method is an improvement over calorie counting because it's a simpler metric and thus more likely to be used. The BW is a longtime WW follower and feels it has helped her. But our real need is to return to eating food as close as practical to its natural, minimally processed, form. The way it was created.

Best to you,

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Skio, you told of how the doctor recommended cutting calories to which you objected but then went on to emphasize the need to cut calories by changing what we eat. So it sounds like you weren't objecting to the need to reduce calories but the manner in which it is done, eating less versus eating differently. Is that correct or is there something else I'm missing? Thanks for the articles. Really enjoy them!

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaren

Laren, you said it best. Calories are okay, we need them for fuel. But Americans generally eat way too much calories, which leads to overweight and obesity. But the attempt to reduce calories by counting them and starving ourselves has been a colossal failure; we continue to become overweight and obese because of the hunger drive.

At the same time we're eating too many calories, Americans are deficient in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients. This chronic insufficiency is a root cause of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.

Bottom line, we should eat less calories and get more nutrients by moving from calorie-dense processed foods to nutrient-dense whole foods. This solves both problems: too many calories and too few nutrients.

I promise to learn how to say that more clearly but in less words. Best to you.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I have always loved legumes, even as a child when I didn't like much else in the way of vegetables. Lima beans are still my favorite, and I eat them the way I did when I was young, steamed with a bit of butter and salt. Chick peas are extremely versatile and easy to add to any dish, especially salads, but I also love them roasted - they taste just like nuts and have a wonderful crunch. I use a recipe for roasted spicy chickpeas I got from the Martha Stewart website.

I also learned to make a simple red lentil soup from a vegetarian cookbook many years ago, which is the easiest thing in the world to make and tastes absolutely delicious. I don't even follow the recipe anymore, just adjust to the thickness I want. I take red lentils (somewhere in the vicinity of a cup) and put them in the bottom of the soup pot with a bit of olive oil and a bit of butter, and I stir them around on medium heat until they smell toasty and start to change color just a bit, then I add chicken or vegetable stock, salt to taste, and whatever herbs or spices I am in the mood for (thyme and marjoram are particularly good with this soup), and black pepper. I simmer it until the lentils have gotten soft and are breaking apart, and then I either mash or puree it a little (leaving some whole lentils, so the soup takes on a nice thick consistency but still has some texture), and I add some lemon juice just before serving (or serve it with lemon wedges so people can add the acid to their own taste). It is best with some nice crusty bread.

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKiera

We love eating lentils! In fact, I make a great, low cast lentil soup at least twice a month. I just cook my lentils in vegetable broth and add potatoes, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, and fresh parsley. We love to eat this with homemade cornbread. It is a great kid friendly meal. Thank you for your informative and valuable posts. I am an avid reader of your blog!

August 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay Family

I was just wondering your opinion on canned legumes. I haven't had a lot of luck with soaking beans [they often are still hard the next morning after an overnight soak] and I don't want to buy a pressure cooker. It is so convenient to buy the cans even though I know that raises their price and I always rinse them before use. Do you know if the benefits are relatively the same as the bagged version?

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

We love beans and eat them several times a week here--in tacos and burritos, in white, red, or brow chili, and in soups. My kids might not adore them, but it's what they've always known so they deal with it! The key for me is planning ahead and making them in bulk.
Jessica, the canned beans might still be a value, but they do have lots of preservatives and additives to them--look on the ingredient list next time and you won't just see "beans and water". That said, I still use them in a pinch! Also, after you soak the beans, you need to drain the water, add more water, and cook them. You can use a crock pot to cook them all day on low (here's a good recipe for that or cook them on the stove for a few hours. Cook a big batch and you can store leftovers in 2 cup portions in the freezer--which then means you have the equivalent of cans of beans in the freezer, always ready for you!
Thanks, Skip, for keeping me on track with improving my health!

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAli

Hi Jessica

Ali responded to your question on canned legumes and I agree: Modest amounts of canned legumes (beans) shouldn't be a problem. Canning makes it easy to add some kidney or garbanzo beans to salads, for example. I'm always conscious of cost in making recommendations so please note you pay about three times more for the convenience.

Regarding additives, I looked at our kidney bean can. Two preservatives are added: calcium chloride (provides salty taste without adding to "sodium" and keeps beans from getting too soft; calcium disodium EDTA retards oxidation so preserves color. Both are FDA approved and actually have medical uses. There's also the issue of the lining material in the can, which is not identified.

We mostly use dried beans in soups and bean dishes but we do like TJ's turkey chili, especially to garnish a baked potato. I think some guidance on soaking beans to the right firmness would be helpful. That's the problem I've noticed the most in my cooking. We'll try to post on that later.

Best to you,

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

We love Mujaddara - Very economical and absolutely delicious!

Here's a good recipe:

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarla


I don't use many beans in my diet but I am trying to include them more, especially in soups. My problem is that I use many American recipes but live in England and as the saying goes we 'are separated by a common laguage'. Can anyone help with the vocabulary? I so far have:
English - chick peas American - garbanzo bean
- haricot bean - navy bean
- butter beans - lima bean
(although I don't think these two are exactly same)
- broad beans - fava beans

I lived in the US for a while and used pinto beans - is there an English equivalent.

Thanks, Con

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCon

I eat legumes by sticking them on a tortilla with a little cheese under the broiler for a couple minutes and then I top it with whatever else I have on hand (salsa, sour cream, avacado, onion). This has become my new lunch staple as it's easy, quick and filling.

I tried to press the RSS feed button on your sidebar and the link seems to be broken.

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

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