Hardcore Paleo advocates fervently argue that legumes are unhealthy and are to be completely avoided for optimal health.
Their main concern with beans, lentils and peas surrounds the high levels of anti-nutrients in legumes, which they claim lead to poor nutrient absorption and inflammation.
While there is some truth to these arguments and there are people who may benefit by avoiding legumes, Paleo die-hards often ignore the large body of scientific evidence that illustrates the health-promoting benefits of legumes.
True, you could run into a problem if legumes are not prepared properly or if they dominate the majority of your diet. But, the majority of healthy people can benefit from including legumes as a part of a diverse whole foods diet.
Here are my top 5 reasons to include legumes in your diet!
1. they’re Great food for your microbiome
At some point during childhood, you probably proudly belted out “Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot.”
While the jingle has annoyed parents and teachers since the beginning of time, it also illustrates beans’ legendary ability to feed our gut bugs. The prebiotic nature of beans and other legumes is attributed to their high fiber and resistant starch content.
By including legumes in your diet, you can broaden the diversity of the fibers that your gut bugs are feeding on. A diversity in fermentable fibers leads to a more diverse and healthy microbiome.
Jeff Leach, a microbiome expert, recommends eating 30 different plants a week in order to facilitate microbial diversity. Eating 30 types of plant foods a week can become difficult if you are following a strict paleo diet. By including legumes, you can more easily attain the high level of diversity needed in order to maintain a healthy bacterial community.
2. they’re Easy on blood sugar
Research seems to demonstrate that individuals with blood sugar imbalances tolerate legumes better than many other carbohydrate sources.
Legume starch is more slowly digested than other forms of starch from cereals and tubers, which produces a less abrupt change in blood sugar and insulin when eaten.
Not only are legumes slow acting carbohydrates, but they actually can influence the expression of genes involved in blood sugar regulation.
In a review paper aimed at reviewing the role of legumes in the treatment of metabolic syndromes, the authors write “the ameliorating effects of legume consumption on the alterations associated with the Metabolic Syndrome are clearly reported and coincide with changes in the expression of protein and genes involved in lipid and glucose metabolism.”
Therefore, diabetics often experience better blood sugar stability when they incorporate legumes in their diet.
But, diabetics are not the only individuals that could benefit from better glucose control. Individuals with hormonal imbalances like adrenal or thyroid dysfunction also have trouble maintaining their blood sugar and could benefit from including more lower glycemic foods like legumes in their diets.
If you struggle to maintain good blood sugar when eating gluten-free grains like rice and quinoa, try adding beans into your starch rotation instead.
3. They have High nutrient density (really!)
Legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas, are high in folate, magnesium, manganese, copper, potassium, phosphorous and iron. They are also rich in phytonutrients that can provide antioxidants that reduce inflammation.
When properly prepared and thoroughly cooked, the anti-nutrient content of beans and legumes is significantly reduced, so concerns about low nutrient availability may be overblown.
Legumes are also the richest sources of molybdenum, a rarely discussed yet essential nutrient. When we’re deficient in molybdenum, we can experience symptoms related to poor detoxification such as histamine and sulfur sensitivity or intolerance.
Grain products and nuts are considered good sources of molybdenum, while animal products, fruit, and many vegetables are generally low. As you can see, the standard Paleo diet could be very low in molybdenum if grains and beans are not eaten.
There may be other nutrient that beans provide in high amounts that would be difficult to get on a strict Paleo diet, so if you can tolerate beans and legumes you should consider reintroducing them into your diet.
4. They may prevent chronic disease
As much as the Paleo community argues that legumes create disease, the overall available research seems to come to an opposite conclusion. Within the literature, there is strong evidence that legume intake is protective against type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.
Legumes are not only proven to help treat existing diabetes, but diets with low glycemic loads have been shown to also prevent insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Legumes could also indirectly help prevent diabetes by facilitating better weight management.
Legumes slow digestion results in their eaters experiencing a sustained feeling of fullness. This satiety can prevent overeating. With obesity and diabetes often hand in hand, legumes can provide a healthy mechanism to control hunger.
Legumes also seem to be good for the old ticker. In an epidemiological study of 9,632 men and women, those who ate 4 or more servings of legumes a week compared with less than once a week was associated with a 22% lower risk of developing Coronary Heart Disease and an 11% lower risk of developing Cardiovascular Disease. There are a number of proposed mechanisms in which legumes exert their heart protective effects.
Legumes are high in folate, which help lower homocysteine levels in the blood. High homocysteine levels have been associated with higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
In addition, the magnesium and potassium in legumes may help reduce blood pressure leading to a reduced risk of Cardiovascular Disease. The high soluble fiber in legumes could also reduce risk by lower cholesterol.
To avoid cancer, look no further than your favorite legumes. Most of the studies that present the anti-cancerous benefits of legumes are focused on prostate cancer. One case controlled study found that prostate cancer was inversely associated with legume intake.
The individuals who had the highest legume intake experienced a 38% reduced risk of prostate cancer compared to the individuals with the lowest legume intake.
Other research has pointed out that the phytic acid in legumes can deprive and inhibit cancer cells by depriving them of minerals, especially iron, that they need for growth.
To argue that legumes are not only not beneficial but actually detrimental to good health doesn’t seem to line up well with the research that exists.
5. They provide plant based protein for vegans and vegetarian
This isn’t so much a problem for the Paleo crew, but if you’re moving towards a plant-based diet then legumes are pretty important to eat on a regular basis. When eliminating animal sources from the diet, it can become a bit trickier to make sure you are consuming all the essential amino acids.
While not a complete form of protein, legumes can complement other plant proteins to provide vegans and vegetarians with the amino acids their body needs. Lentils are particularly high in protein with 18 grams per cooked cup. Black beans are also not too shabby coming in at around 15g of protein per cooked cup.
When I did my very short-term vegan fast, the main source of protein in my diet was legumes. Without them, it would have been nearly impossible to get enough protein to supply my body’s most basic needs.
If a plant-based diet is your preferred way of eating, legumes absolutely need to be a large component of your diet.
Who shouldn’t eat legumes?
While legumes can provide variety and nutrients for healthy people, there are times when legume avoidance is warranted. If you are dealing with gut dysfunction, such as SIBO, dysbiosis, IBS, Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, the high fiber content and chemical compounds in legumes may exacerbate these conditions.
Individuals with these conditions may be able to add legumes back into their diet after they undergo treatment.
In addition to GI dysfunction, people with autoimmune conditions may also benefit from a temporary elimination of legumes. Intestinal permeability, more commonly known as leaky gut, has been linked to many autoimmune diseases and involves the breakdown of the gut barrier in the GI tract.
The phytates and lectins in legumes can irritate the lining of the gut making it difficult, if not impossible, to heal. A temporary elimination diet may be necessary in order to seal the gut lining. But once the lining is healed, you can usually add legumes back into your diet.
Poking holes in the “Paleo” argument
A strict Paleo diet removes legumes because of their higher phytic acid and lectin content. In high amounts, these compounds do block the absorption of zinc, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and iron.
Phytates have also been shown to deplete vitamin D stores, which can lead to lower bone mineral density. As discussed above, lectins and phyates can also irritate the gut lining. Digestion can also be negatively impacted by lectins and phytates by inhibiting enzymes that breakdown protein and starches.
One problem with the Paleo argument is that some foods high in phytate are arbitrarily removed while others are promoted. Brazil nuts, almonds, cocoa powder and walnuts have higher phytic acid than any legume, but these are seen as perfectly healthy Paleo options.
It doesn’t make much sense for someone to eat several handfuls of raw nuts per day while avoiding legumes because of their phytate content!
Anti-legume Paleo advocates also ignore the ability to mitigate the high phytic acid by properly preparing legumes. Hunter gatherer communities have been soaking and sprouting legumes for ages. Once the phytic acid is reduced through soaking and fermenting, you can reap all the benefits of legumes while minimizing the negative effects of phytic acid.
Properly preparing legumes
Legumes should always be soaked and fermented before consumption. Proper preparation of legumes will allow for better digestion and maximize the nutrient absorption of the legumes.
Proper preparation minimizes the phytic acid, unlocking the nutrients within our favorite legumes.If legumes are not soaked and fermented, you may not be able to absorb the nutrients those legumes contain.
The Weston A. Price Foundation has a great video providing simple instructions on how to properly prepare legumes and grains. Here are their instructions on proper preparation of legumes:
“For kidney shaped beans, put beans, a pinch of baking soda and enough water to cover in a large pot and soak for 12-24 hours. For non-kidney shaped beans like black beans and other legumes, soak with water and 1 TBL of cider vinegar or lemon juice for every cup of dried legumes used.
For maximum digestibility, it is best to rinse and refresh the water and baking soda or the acidic medium once or twice during the soaking period.
Once soaking is complete, drain, rinse, add fresh water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add a few cloves of peeled and crushed garlic if desired and simmer for 4-8 hours until soft.”
The bottom line?
Properly prepared legumes can be a nutritious and delicious addition to a diverse whole foods diet.
If you don’t have a medical condition that warrants their elimination, you may actually benefit from including beans on a regular basis!
Now tell me, do you eat beans and legumes? Share your thoughts in the comments below!