Wild rice in a white bowl on a table top

13 Healthiest Beans, Grains & Legumes

Wild rice 300x169 - 13 Healthiest Beans, Grains & Legumes

 

Beans, grains, and legumes are praised far and wide by health experts.

 

As the fruit or seed of an edible cereal or plant, whole, intact grains, and legumes are nutrient-dense. After all, these tiny little packages need to supply a growing plant with the necessities for life until they can produce their own nutrients and energy via photosynthesis.

 

Relatively decent studies, observational prospective, and some interventional trials have demonstrated health benefits associated with their consumption. Despite the presence of antinutrients, we can digest and absorb many of their vitamins, minerals, and protective phytonutrients.

 

Including more whole grains, legumes, and beans, a.k.a. pulses, as part of an overall nutrient-dense diet that for this writer includes nutrient-rich animal foods, is a great strategy for your long-term health goals.

 

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Pulses 101

Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family.

 

The word ‘legume’ refers to plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. While there are several thousands of different species of legumes, more well-known ones include clover, alfalfa, fresh peas, fresh beans, soybeans, peanuts, and mesquite.

 

The term ‘pulse’ refers only to the dried seed of legumes. The most common types include dried peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

 

Generally speaking, pulses are quite nutritious. They’re high in protein and fiber, as well as, the minerals iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins and they are naturally gluten-free.

 

Pulses deliver a lot of nutrition for very little cost.

 

Pulses do not include fresh peas or fresh beans (think green or yellow) although they are related. Peanuts and soybeans mainly differ due to the fact that they are higher in fat whereas pulses are virtually fat-free. But pulses are higher in carbohydrates.

 

FUN FACT: pulses and legumes are referred to as “proteins” but in fact, they get about 60% or more of their calories from carbohydrate. They act more like carbs when eaten and impact blood sugar like carbs. Better to think of them as protein-rich than as a ‘protein’.

 

Whole grains can be added to soups and stews; they can also be cooked into different types of hot cereals or porridge. Cooled, cooked grains, beans and legumes make a great base for salads or they can be added to a green salad as a topping.

 

Instead of rice as the go-to grain for rice pudding, try an alternate grain for a fun change. A small portion of a cooled, cooked grain or pulse can also be added to smoothies and protein shakes for added smoothness and to up the nutritional oomph.

 

Check out 13 of my favourite below.

Healthy grains

Teff

Teff, a staple in Ethiopia and Eritrea, is gaining ground in Canada. Fifteen years ago, none of my clients had heard of it but today, that’s changing. Teff is a very tiny grain, similar in size to poppy seeds.

 

Teff is a heavy hitter when it comes to calcium; a one-half cup has 123 mg or about the same as a half cup of spinach. Teff is also rich in magnesium; 126 mg for the same half-cup measure.

 

It also boasts an impressive amount of protein, fiber, potassium and is gluten-free. Teff has the advantage of cooking quickly making it easy to prepare.

 

The high levels of minerals in teff; potassium, magnesium and even calcium help to reduce blood pressure.

Barley

Barley is an underrated grain. When asked, most clients say they occasionally eat barely as part of beef and barley soup which is great but there are so many different ways to include barley.

 

Barley can be enjoyed as a cooked whole grain or it can be milled and cut like oats and turned into barley grits or steel-cut barley, both of which can be used to make porridge.

 

Like wheat, barley can also be milled into flour and used in baking so sneaking in barley goodness is easy. Barley, of course, can be served hot like rice or pilaf or it makes a great base for a cold salad.

 

Like other whole grains, the nutrients in barley offer a range of health benefits maintaining healthy blood pressure, support bone and heart health, reduce inflammation, support gut health, gut bacteria, and regularity.

 

One-third cup (80 ml) of uncooked barely has 27 mg molybdenum, 11 g fiber, 23 mcg selenium, 162 mg phosphorus, 82 mg magnesium, and 3 mg vitamin B3. Barley is also a good source of soluble fiber which may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke

Wild rice

Many may be surprised to learn that wild rice is a native grass to North America originally found in and around the upper Great Lakes.

 

Per one cup serving, wild rice boasts a decent amount of protein (6.5 g) and is a good source of fiber (3 g), vitamin B3 and zinc. Due to its dark colour which it gets from specific pigments, wild rice is rich in health-promoting antioxidants and phytonutrients.

 

Wild rice takes a longer to cook; when the rice bursts open, it’s done.

Amaranth

Another ancient grain, amaranth has a long culinary history in Mexico and is considered a native crop of Peru and was a major crop of the Aztecs some 6000-8000 years ago.

 

Amaranth, like all whole grains, is rich in the usual suspects of nutrients such as 4.6 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 2.5 g fiber, 166 mg potassium, 2.6 mg iron, and 80 mg magnesium and only 125 calories per one-half cup.

 

Cooking amaranth is easy; use a ratio of 3 to 4:1 water to grain and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Cooked amaranth will not lose its crunch completely so don’t let that fact fool you into thinking it’s not done.

 

The inner kernel will soften while the outer remains firm; cooked amaranth will ‘pop’ when you chew them. You can use cooked amaranth as you would use any other grain to make a pilaf or spread out cooked amaranth on a cookie sheet, let dry and add as a topping on salads, soups or stews.

Whole oats

Oats are one of the most popular grains on earth. They have been enjoyed by many cultures around the world, primarily as oatmeal porridge.

 

Oats have also been studied to see if they help to reduce the risk of heart disease, balance blood sugar levels, and improve cholesterol levels. Some studies have suggested that eating more whole oats, rolled oats or steel-cut oats help with weight loss and a reduction in LDL cholesterol.

 

Oats are particularly rich in avenanthramide, an antioxidant that uniquely promotes heart health.

 

Not surprisingly, whole oats are a great source of fiber, vitamin B1, potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper.

Healthy legumes

As mentioned above, legumes and pulses are high in protein but are best seen has protein-rich plant foods versus describing them just a protein(s). Unlike eggs, chicken, fish, beef, pork, etc which are rich in pure protein and vitamins and minerals, legumes are a mix of protein and carbohydrates.

Lentils

I love lentils. They are inexpensive, versatile, nutritious, and believe it or not, a proud Canadian food product. Most would be surprised to learn that Canada only started to grow lentils in the 1970s.

 

Canada now exports 67% of the world’s lentils making Canada the world’s largest lentil exporter – most of which goes to India, as well as, Morroco.

 

Including more lentils in your diet makes sense. They provide a boatload of nutrition in a small package and are easy to prepare; even if you are a novice cook, lentils won’t let you down in the kitchen.

 

One-cup (250 ml) has a whopping 18 g protein, 16 g fiber, 358 mcg folate (a lot!), and 731 mg of potassium; more than a medium banana. Lentils are one of the best plant sources of protein and fiber per serving.

 

PRO TIP: while many plant foods are high in protein, that doesn’t mean an amino acid or two might be lacking. It’s crucial to get a variety of sources of protein-rich plant foods if you’re following a vegan diet.

 

Mention antioxidants and everyone thinks of blueberries, pomegranate, or the wildly expensive goji or acai berry, as well as, green tea and the like. But lentils and all pulses [chickpeas, dried peas and beans] are rich in antioxidants for a fraction of the cost.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans are part of the legume family.

 

Chickpeas have been grown in the middle east for thousands of years, long before they became popular in North America. I remember my first experience with chickpeas; a tasty falafel with tahini sauce – yum!

 

They’re packed with nutrients and because of their fiber content, they may benefit digestion. The fiber in chickpeas is mostly soluble fiber. Soluble fiber forms a gel in your digestive tract which helps to slow digestion, help with bowel movements and, may help with appetite control.

 

1 cup (250 ml) of cooked or canned chickpeas has an impressive 15 g protein, 13 g fiber, 282 mcg folate, 80 mg of calcium, 477 mg potassium and 4.7 mg of iron – not too shabby.

 

Chickpea flour can add fiber, protein, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals to gluten-free baking.

 

Add chickpeas to vegetable soup to increase its nutritional content.

 

Sprinkle some canned or packaged roasted chickpeas over a salad to add a nutty flavour and to broaden the variety of textures.

 

Toss chickpeas with any vinaigrette for an easy salad high in protein and fiber. Add some rice to make it a complete protein or complement the amino acids that aren’t present in high enough amounts with cheese, or a sliced hard-boiled egg. Chickpeas on their own don’t offer the same amount of digestible protein than when it’s complemented,

Dried peas

Dried peas are simply the dried version of fresh green or yellow peas.

 

They’re available as whole or split pea, the latter being appropriately called “split peas” which what most people are familiar with since they’re the foundation of split pea or pea soup.

 

When fresh, green peas dominate but as dried peas, both are used to make soups.

 

Dried peas are an excellent source of molybdenum. They are also a very good source of dietary fiber and a good source of manganese, copper, protein, folate, vitamin B1, phosphorus, vitamin B5 and potassium.

 

One-cup of split peas have 230 calories, 41 g carbohydrate, 16 g fiber, 25 g net carbs, 16 g protein, a source of vitamin B1, or thiamin, 127 mcg folate, 2.5 mg iron, and a whopping 710 mg potassium.

 

They’re easy to include. Use split peas to make dahl, the classic Indian dish or the classic split pea soup. Try using purée cooked peas with your favourite herbs and spices and serve as a side dish or add whole peas to vegetable soups.

Healthy beans

All dried beans are essentially the same practically speaking whether its red, black or white kidney beans, fava, black eye peas, pigeon peas, etc. Because beans and legumes have lectins, they may something to avoid during active flare-ups of certain bowel diseases according to some research.

 

They’re all nutrient-rich and in many cases, can be used interchangeably in recipes, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a purist. I’ll gladly put chickpeas in my chili if I’m in the mood or if I don’t have any kidney beans on hand.

 

A few of the more commonly used beans include:

Kidney beans

Kidney beans are a variety of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), a legume native to Central America and Mexico.

 

While not considered an ingredient of the original chili recipe, today, most chili recipes call for them.

 

One-cup of cooked or canned kidney beans have 225 calories, 40 g carb, 13 g fiber, 15 g protein (a little less than lentils), and are a good source of folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, and of course phytonutrients.

 

Unlike other beans and legumes, kidney beans are one bean that HAS to be thoroughly cooked before eating them. They contain the lectin phytohaemagglutinin that is toxic when eaten but it is only found in raw or improperly cooked kidney beans. This is why you’ll never see kidney bean sprouts used in salads or sandwichs like you do with other legumes and beans.

Pinto beans

Pintos are a variety of the common bean Phaseolus vulgaris. Considered the most popular bean in the US and northwestern Mexico, it’s most often eat whole or mashed and the refried.

 

Whole or mashed and refried, it’s a common filling for burritos in Mexican and American-Mexican cuisine. In Spanish, pinto beans are called frijol pinto or “speckled bean” because they’re beige with reddish-brown specks when dried.

 

When cooked those, they become a solid light brown or pale pink and have an earthy, almost nutty flavour.

 

One-cup of boiled pinto beans have 245 calories, 45 g carbs, 15 g fiber or 30 g net carbs, 15 g protein, 28% DV of thiamin or vitamin B1, 20% DV iron, 21% DV magnesium and 745 mg or 16% DV potassium.

Black eyed beans

This one goes by many names such as black-eyed pea, black-eyed bean, crowder or goat pea and is a subspecies of the cowpea.

 

The common commercial variety is called the California Blackeye; it is pale-coloured with a prominent black spot.

 

This bean can be found in different cultural cuisines around the world; American, African countries and the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific and throughout Europe.

 

Not surprisingly, they have heaps of good stuff such as 36 g carbohydrate, 11 g fiber, 25 g net carbs, 13 g protein, and stand out of the crowd with 91 mg of magnesium, 268 mg phosphorus and a decent 478 mg of potassium all for only 200 calories per one cup of cooked or canned beans

Navy beans

Last but not least, navy beans are another popular choice.

 

The nutritional profile is a little different with these guys, one cup of cooked or canned navy beans have a little more of everything; just shy of 300 calories, 54 g carb, 13 g fiber, 20 g protein, 162 mcg of folate, 350 mg phosphorus, a very decent amount of magnesium – 136 mg, a whopping 750 mg potassium, and 15 mcg selenium.

 

Like most foods, navy beans go by other names depending on the cultural context. They’re also called haricot, pearl haricot bean, Boston bean, white pea bean, and pea bean. Regardless of how you slice it, navy beans are common.

 

Navy beans are oval in shape and slightly flattened and are smaller than other common white beans such as cannellini, Great Northern white bean, lima beans (also known as butter beans) and the runner bean.

 

Of course, there are many other beans that are part of the human diet but there’s way too many to include in a blog post.

 

Rest assured that regardless of the type of bean (or pulse for that matter), they’re all good sources of nutrients: such as molybdenum, folate, dietary fiber and copper, as well as, manganese, phosphorus, protein, vitamin B1, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

 

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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

 

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