Legumes: The Poor Man’s Protein

Mariam Alireza, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2004-12-08 03:00

Legumes may have been considered the “poor man’s protein” and looked down upon in cultures obsessed with meat, but in the Middle, Near and Far East, legumes have been embraced for centuries as their staple food, nutrient and medicine. Only recently in the West, health conscious individuals have discovered the many benefits of these vegetal food. Because of flatulence, difficulty of digestibility, and allergies, many people fear eating them. The large family of legumes consists of hummus or garbanzo, foul beans, a variety of lentils, split peas, kidney, lima, butter, mung, black, fava, green, and red beans, and the famous soy and aduki beans.

Legumes are known for their high protein content, but they are also rich in good fat, carbohydrate, B-vitamins, potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin C and enzymes when they are sprouted. Their richness in nutrients makes them a wholesome meal. They contain other valuable nutrients, such as soluble and insoluble fibers and phytosterols.

Soluble fiber in legumes is essential to the heart as it maintains the blood free of harmful fats that clog vessels and arteries. This kind of fiber is found in high amounts in soybean, making it and its byproducts (tofu, miso, soymilk) specifically recommended for heart disease. It binds to bile acids and cholesterol in the small intestine, preventing fat absorption to the bloodstream. Soluble fiber is also found in whole grains (oat, barley), fruits (apple, citrus fruits and their skin), seeds (sesame, psyllium) and tree gum. It is called soluble due to its solubility in water, whereas insoluble fiber does not dissolve or get digested, but retains water in the intestines, increasing stool bulk and preventing constipation. This fiber is the roughage in and around whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables.

Phytosterols, considered as antioxidants for their de-oxidizing effect, also compete with fats for absorption in the gut, as they contain phytochemicals similar to cholesterol. They are found in legumes (soy, peas, beans), fruits (orange, banana, apple), and vegetables (beets, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, onions). Vegetable oils, nuts and wheat germ also contain sterols. Phytosterols are prescribed for breast cancer and osteoporosis (bone loss) as well as the reduction of blood cholesterol.

Legumes have other medicinal properties than the ones mentioned above. Their protein can help regulate sugar, water, and metabolism, balance sexual activity, and improve body and brain development. Legumes also have a diuretic effect, but adding fat and salt cancels this action.

In recent Egyptian studies, foul beans were found to stop diarrhea in infants, reducing infant mortality as well as regulating blood sugar in diabetics. Hummus, good for the functions of the pancreas and stomach, is richer than any other legume in iron and contains unsaturated fats.

In China and Japan, soybean is used to clear the blood of fat deposits, and enhance pancreatic functions. Its alkalizing property detoxifies the intestines from yeast infections and food poisoning. Its diuretic effect clears yeasts and edema.

Soy and its products increase milk production during nursing and reduce hypertension during pregnancy. It supplements adult and childhood malnutrition. Lecithin in soy is good for brain nourishment.

In spite of their benefits, legumes are often avoided for causing indigestion, flatulence, and allergies. To facilitate their digestibility, certain measures should be taken to reduce gases produced by trisacchrides in beans. A healthy digestive system has enzymes that easily digest and convert trisacchrides to simple sugars. However, those who are deficient in the enzyme and wish to avoid their undesirable effects should introduce legumes in very small amounts at first in their diet, in order to slowly generate the necessary digestive enzymes. Prior to cooking, most legumes (and even grains) should be soaked in water overnight or for at least eight hours (changing the water in between) to remove the phytic acid that deters mineral absorption in the intestines.

Beans should be well cooked, or else their digestive enzymes are not released, resulting in flatulence, indigestion, irritability, and even unclear thinking. Chewing legumes well and mixing them with saliva speed up their digestion. Lentils, aduki and mung beans, and peas are easier to digest, followed by kidney, lima, pinto and black beans, whereas soybeans are the hardest to digest. That is why they require proper cooking. Use sea salt, miso, or soy sauce; salt helps digest protein. Add cumin or fennel seeds to legumes to dispel gases, as we do with foul dishes. To enhance flavor, enzymes, nutrients, and quick cooking, put soaked seaweed under legumes. Remove foaming water in the first 20 minutes of boiling to clear from indigestible enzymes. For more digestibility, add apple or white vinegar in the last stages of cooking or in salad dressing. Using vinegar breaks down the proteins in legumes. Sprouting legumes makes them much more digestible and increases enzymes and vitamins. Soy products like tofu, tempeh, and soymilk are more tolerated than the bean itself.

Infants under the age of 18 months should not be fed the dry type of legumes; at this early age, their digestive enzymes are still undeveloped. Fresh green beans and peas are easier to digest at this stage. These cooking tips should help in eliminating the nasty effects of flatulence produced by legumes, while keeping all the benefits intact. Nothing should deter us from enjoying these healthy and healing foods.

Quick Tips

Legumes make excellent dishes, whether as soup, salad, side-dishes, or combined with main dishes. Any kind of bean, pea or lentil mixes well with fresh vegetables, whole grains, pasta or meat. As appetizers and light meals, they taste good with greens or other vegetables and whole grains. For a quick healthy recipe, combine a cup of pre-soaked-and-cooked red beans with steamed or fried chunks of eggplant (white beans, carrots or corn kernels) and sliced onions. Add a dressing of your liking, preferably apple vinegar and olive oil based. Bon appetit.

(Mariam Alireza is a holistic science specialist. Send comments to [email protected].)

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