What Are Legumes?
Legumes are a class of plants that include beans, peas, and lentils. Although fresh green beans and peas are technically legumes, the term usually refers to the dried versions, such as kidney, navy, black, and pinto beans and lentils. Legumes have a similar nutrient profile to foods in both the protein foods group and the vegetable group and can be considered either a vegetable or a protein food. Because of this, they can be counted in the vegetable or protein groups to meet recommended intakes.
Why Eat Legumes?
Legumes are an excellent source of protein and provide iron and zinc. They are low in fat and sodium and high in dietary fiber, potassium, magnesium, and the B vitamin, folate. Legumes are an integral part of many healthy eating patterns, including the Mediterranean style of eating, the DASH eating plan, vegetarian and vegan diets, and lowerglycemic- index (GI) diets. Along with being a highly nutritious food, evidence shows that legumes can play an important role in the prevention and management of many different health conditions. Recent research supports their contribution to heart health by lowering cholesterol and contributing to lower blood pressure due to their excellent fiber content. Legumes may also reduce the risks of developing cancer and diabetes.
Beans are one of the best sources of dietary fiber, containing both insoluble and soluble fiber. Current recommendations from the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for adult daily intake of fiber are 25 grams per day for women who are 31 to 50 years old and 35 grams per day for men who are 31 to 50 years old. Adults over 50 have slightly lower recommended amounts. Cooked dried beans contribute 9 to 15 grams of fiber in a 1-cup serving, depending on the legume eaten. Dietary fiber is not digested but fills you up, making it a good addition to weight loss and weight control diets.
Dried beans are found in many American ethnic dishes, from Boston baked beans to southern black-eyed peas. Current dietary recommendations are for Americans to eat 1½ to 2 cups of legumes each week.
Eating More Is Easy
Adding more legumes to your diet is easy if you keep them on hand. Beans come in many shapes, colors, sizes, and textures. Dried beans must be soaked several hours before cooking. They are very low cost and have a long shelf life. Most of these beans can also be found canned, which makes adding kidney beans to chili or black beans to salsa very easy. Rinse and drain canned beans to remove up to 40 percent of the sodium. Some legumes, such as peas, lima beans, and edamame (soybeans), are easily stored in your freezer. Cooked dried beans can also be frozen and divided into several meals. Serve beans for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks and even use them as an ingredient in desserts for a lower fat, higher fiber and protein option.
Don’t Fear the Side Effects
Soaking beans or rinsing canned beans can reduce some of the carbohydrates that cause unwanted gas or flatulence when eating legumes. The carbohydrates in beans are only partially digested in our small intestine. They move to the large intestine where bacteria break them down and create gas. Taking a digestive aid, like Beano, can help, as can washing away liquid from canned beans. Cooking with certain herbs such as fennel, oregano, rosemary, and cilantro may also be helpful. Research shows that eating beans more often can reduce gas formation as the body adjusts in time to increased legume consumption.
Legume intake can be increased gradually by adding beans and peas to green salads and other combination foods. When combined with pasta or corn in the diet, all the amino acids found in animal protein are present—a choice made by many vegetarians.
Hummus is a Middle Eastern food that has become quite popular in the United States. It is often served with pita bread or fresh vegetable dippers and can be flavored with roasted peppers, parsley, tahini, or hot peppers. Using a blender or food processor makes it very easy to prepare from your favorite kind of canned beans.
Preparing Dry Beans
Most dried beans and peas need to be rehydrated before cooking. This can be done in several hours or overnight. Before soaking legumes, sort through the bag of dried beans and discard discolored or shriveled beans and any foreign matter. Place the beans in a colander or strainer and rinse them under cold, running water.
Choose one of these soaking methods:
- Hot soak: In a stockpot, cover 1 pound of dried beans with 10 cups of water. Heat to boiling and boil for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Remove beans from heat, cover, and let stand for 4 to 24 hours. Drain beans. Rinse beans with fresh, cool water.
- Slow soak: In a stockpot, cover 1 pound of dried beans with 10 cups of water. Cover and refrigerate 8 hours or overnight. Drain beans. Rinse beans with fresh, cool water.
- Quick soak: In a stockpot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add 1 pound of dried beans and return to boil. Boil 2–3 minutes. Cover and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour. Drain beans. Rinse beans with fresh, cool water.
After soaking, discard water and rinse beans before cooking. One pound of dried beans yields 5–6 cups of cooked beans.
Serving size: makes four 1-cup servings
- 1 15-oz can garbanzo beans (chickpeas) drained, liquid reserved
- 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon (3 Tbsp)
- 1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Dash of cayenne or black pepper
- Parsley and olive oil, for garnish
- Add all ingredients into food processor or blender and blend until smooth. If too thick, add liquid from chickpeas or water. You may need to blend in batches so as not to overload the food processor or blender.
- Put into desired dish and garnish with olive oil and parsley, if desired.
“10 Reasons Dry Beans Promote Heart Health.” The Bean Institute.
2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Washington, D.C.: United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, 2015.
“Beans and Peas Are Unique Foods.” ChooseMyPlate.gov. USDA, 2018. .
“Bean Facts.” American Bean.
“Legumes Improve Heart Risk, Glycemic Control.” Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter 31, no. 1 (March 2013).
Mayo Clinic. “Beans and Other Legumes: Types and Cooking Tips.” July 6, 2017.
Moore, M. “Beans.” Food & Nutrition Magazine (September/October 2013).
Polak, R., E. M. Phillips, and A. Campbell. “Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake.” Clin Diabetes 33, no. 4 (2015): 198–205.
Originally prepared by Fran Alloway, extension educator (retired). Updated by Nancy Routch, extension educator. Edited and reviewed by Lynn James, senior extension educator.