Many of us know that pulses, the technically correct term for lentils, split peas, chickpeas, and beans, are good for us. And there’s no doubt they’re nutritional powerhouses but they’ve gotten a bad rap, especially where gas is concerned; eat too many without taking baby steps and it’s off to fartsville. With a little know-how, you’ll be able to them part of your dietary plan to better health without much fanfare.
So what’s in a pulse?
Pulses are an excellent source of slow-burning carbohydrate and are gluten-free, a great option for those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Pulses are also an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin linked to a healthy pregnancy and a lower risk of colon cancer, heart disease and stroke.
They also offer a lot of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and iron. Potassium is an essential nutrient that helps to lower blood pressure [very well] but it’s a nutrient that many of us simply don’t get enough of.
Under ideal growing conditions, pulses could be a good source of magnesium. Lentils for example are listed as having some 70mg per cup, but because synthetic fertilizers only include nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, any nutrient database listing the magnesium content of pulses, is likely over stated since most soils are depleted of this incredibly important nutrient due to modern farming practices.
Gone are the days of crop rotation, soil rest, and growing clover and alfalfa, to be turned over into the soil; a method of replenishing minerals, and so we’re missing a lot of precious magnesium in our food supply which is why magnesium is a staple supplement for my private practice clients.
You’ll often hear or read that pulses boast a lot of calcium but in reality the amount of calcium is minor; a little fact to help temper the hyperbole of promoting pulses, but pulses are still nutrient dense overall.
Pulses are also a good source of iron. The iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as it is from meat but you can increase its absorption but eating vitamin C-rich foods with pulses at the same meal like peppers, tomatoes or even with a small amount of meat. By combing pulses with meat (chicken or fish for that matter), the iron in pulses is absorbed even more so.
If you’re looking to boost your protein and fiber intake, look no further, pulses deliver. For instance, one cup of lentils delivers 18 grams of protein (the protein equivalent of three eggs or 2.5 ounces of meat) and 15 grams of fibre (slightly more than ½ cup of bran cereal). One qualifier regarding the protein, pulses are mostly carbohydrate with protein, most of their calories come from carbohydrate and they’ll raise blood sugar more than animal protein so they’re really a carbohydrate. If someone is truly vegetarian and doesn’t include eggs or dairy at the very least, we then refer to them as a source of protein because everything else, all plant foods, pale in comparison – the simply don’t have enough making pulses critical in meal planning in that context.
More than just nutrients
Adding pulses to your diet does more than boost your nutrient intake. Studies suggest that eating ¾ cup of pulses at least four times per week helps lower blood pressure as well as the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer. Pulses are loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients, compounds that distinguish, in part, good quality diets versus poorer quality. Eating is more than just calories or grams of fat, protein and carbohydrate.
Pulses are sold dried in packages and already cooked in cans. Dried beans need to be soaked to rehydrate them before your cook them (see below for instructions).
Preparing and eating pulses
Many argue that dried pulses have a superior taste and texture to canned, but they do take longer to prepare. On the other hand, canned pulses are incredibly convenient because they’re already cooked. They’re ready to add to salads, soups, stews, pasta sauces, quinoa and rice dishes, made into hummus, spreads and dips, the list goes on. But you do need to drain and rinse canned beans in a colander first to remove excess sodium and some of the carbohydrates responsible for gas. Also, rinsing canned pulses under water for 60 seconds can remove between 40 to 80% of the sodium.
Unfortunately, pulses are notoriously difficult to digest, due to their high content of unique carbohydrates called ‘oligosaccharides’, which are sugars (fiber technically) that remain undigested until they get to your colon; then its a bacterial smorgasbord where the bacteria in our intestines chow down on the fiber.
The good news is there are ways that you can make pulses more digestible, or less gassy.
1. Soak your beans. Soak your pulses for at least eight hours, preferably overnight. You could leave them to soak in the morning and cook them when you arrive back home in the evening. Soaking pulses reduces the amount of those pesky oligosaccharides, plus it decreases their phytic acid content. Phytic acid binds to vitamins and minerals, making them less available for absorption.
2. Drain and rinse your beans. Don’t take the beans with their soaking water and simply transfer them into a pot for cooking. Using a large colander or strainer, drain your beans and pulses and rinse them really, really, really well. This makes sure you eliminate any oligosaccharides or phytates that were released during soaking time.
4. During cooking. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the pulse. Small pulses (black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, lentils) may take 30 to 45 minutes to cook; medium-sized pulses (kidney beans, chickpeas, lima beans) can take one to two hours.
Once beans are tender, remove from the heat and allow them to sit in cooking liquid while they cool. This prevents them from drying out. Once cooked, pulses are ready to be used in recipes.
You could also add spices that aid digestion like fennel, cumin or ginger.
5. Go slowly. Start off by eating them in small amounts to give your body [bacteria in your gut] time to adjust, and then increase your consumption. Try 1/4 cup, two to three times a week, for a week or two, and then increase to 1/2 cup one serving at a time; up to 3/4 to 1 cup per serving.
12 quick tips to add pulses to your diet
- Add cooked black beans or kidney beans to an omelet.
- Toss cooked lentils into a leafy green salad.
- Add chickpeas to Greek salad for a boost of protein and fiber.
- Toss cooked lentils, chopped bell pepper and chopped red onion with vinaigrette dressing to make a tasty cold salad. Add fresh chopped herbs like parsley or cilantro.
- Enjoy minestrone, split pea, black bean or lentil soup instead of the usual chicken noodle.
- Spread sandwiches with hummus (chickpea purée) instead of mayonnaise.
- Add chickpeas to whole grain side dishes like quinoa, barley and brown rice pilafs.
- Use a variety of beans when making chili. Try chickpeas, black beans and soy beans in addition to kidney beans.
- Add cooked black beans to tacos. Use half the amount of lean ground meat you normally would and make up the difference with beans.
- Add cooked lentils to quesadillas along with other fillings you enjoy.
- Add cooked white kidney beans to a tomato-based pasta sauce for a Mediterranean inspired meal.
- Toss cooked lentils into sautéed leafy greens such as spinach or Swiss chard for a healthy side dish.
There is loads of information by the way on Pulses Canada’s website.
Photo credit: Robinjolin, Sherry Venegas, Yau Chan Ho