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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Minerals: Legumes are a good source of minerals, including calcium and magnesium needed for bone health.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.