What are legumes, and why are they so good for you?
“Legumes” refers to a whole family of plants, but people typically mean the edible pods or seeds, which include pulses, beans, and peas.
Legumes are packed with fiber and protein, as well as healthy fats and carbohydrates and a host of minerals and other nutrients.
They’re good for your gut — and research suggests that legumes may also improve your cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of long-term health conditions, and help with weight management.
Legumes contain proteins called lectins, which some people are worried about. However, legumes are perfectly safe to eat and are extremely good for you.
Here, we explore the health benefits of legumes, which plant foods belong to this family, and how to add them to your diet.
Legumes are highly nutritious, and there are many kinds, so they can increase the diversity of plants in your diet.
Eating a wide range of different plants can help support your gut microbiome, the community of bacteria in your gut. Having a healthy gut microbiome is important for many aspects of your health.
Below, we take a closer look at the specific benefits that legumes can provide.
Improved cholesterol levels
Regularly eating legumes may improve your cholesterol levels by small but significant amounts in a relatively short time.
According to one review, a diet rich in a variety of legumes could offer big improvements.
On average, in people with a legume-rich diet, LDL cholesterol levels fell by 8.0 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), or 0.44 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).
Also, levels of total cholesterol fell by 11.8 mg/dL (0.65 mmol/L) in participants with the legume-rich diet, compared with the control diet.
Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
Eating plenty of legumes may lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
A review of 26 studies found that people who ate more legumes had a reduced risk of both coronary heart disease and overall cardiovascular disease.
The more legumes participants ate, up to around 400 grams per week, the lower the risk of these diseases.
Help with weight management
Another review of studies suggests that eating 1 serving of pulses — like beans, chickpeas, or lentils — every day could help you lose weight.
After 6 weeks, the participants on the diet with pulses lost 0.34 more kilograms of weight, on average, compared with the other participants.
This held true even when the pulse diets weren’t low in calories, suggesting that eating more pulses could be a healthy, nonrestrictive way to manage your weight.
Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
One study followed more than 3,300 people over several years. The results suggest that eating legumes — lentils, in particular — could help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The team found that participants who ate the most legumes were significantly less likely to have developed type 2 diabetes than those who ate the least.
And for older adults with a high risk of cardiovascular disease, the Mediterranean diet may offer some protection against type 2 diabetes. This stems from the diet being rich in legumes.
Reduced risk of colon cancer
A range of studies looked at legume consumption in a total of 1.9 million people over several years.
An analysis found that people who ate the most legumes had a lower risk of developing colon cancer.
A diet that contains a range of legumes can support a healthy gut. It might also improve your cholesterol levels and help with maintaining a healthy weight.
Regularly eating legumes is also associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer.
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Legumes are rich in protein and a good source of fiber, healthy fats, and slow-release carbohydrates. They’re also rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Legumes contain B vitamins and minerals, like:
|Green peas (cooked)
27 types of legumes
There are almost 23,000 species of legumes, though some are inedible.
Plus, some species, like lentils, have several varieties. You can buy others in different forms, such as whole and split peas.
Here’s a list of legumes to try:
black beans (black turtle beans)
cannellini beans (white beans)
chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
cranberry beans (borlotti beans)
fava beans (broad beans)
green beans (string beans or fine beans)
red kidney beans
yellow kidney beans
lima beans (butter beans)
navy beans (haricot beans)
sugar snap peas
Which legumes are the healthiest?
No legume is healthier than another. They’re all rich in nutrients, like fiber and protein. And because each type contains a different range of vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, eating a wide variety is particularly good for you.
The only exception is if you have a nut allergy. In this case, you’ll need to avoid peanuts.
In the ZOE Science & Nutrition podcast episode on protein, Dr. Christopher Gardner describes beans as the healthiest and tastiest source of protein. You can watch the full episode here.
Beans vs. legumes vs. pulses
You may hear the words legumes, pulses, and beans used interchangeably, but they’re not the same.
Legume is an overarching term for any plant in the Fabaceae family, which includes beans, peas, and lentils.
In the world of nutrition, “legume” typically refers to a pod containing seeds, but it can more generally include the plant’s leaves and stems.
Beans, peas, and lentils are also types of “pulses” — these are the seeds inside the legume pod.
In the case of sugar snap peas and string beans, we eat the whole pod. When it comes to beans and lentils, we only eat the seeds, or pulses.
In everyday use, many people only call beans, peas, and lentils “pulses” when they’re buying the dried kind.
So, to sum up:
All beans are legumes.
Not all legumes are beans.
All beans, peas, and lentils are pulses.
All pulses are legumes.
Should you worry about lectins and antinutrients?
Lectins are proteins in many plants, such as legumes and nightshade vegetables.
They’re antinutrients, meaning they sometimes interfere with how your body absorbs and uses nutrients in food.
Some legumes, like lentils, chickpeas, and beans, are high in lectins. If you ate them raw, the lectins would be hard for your gut to break down.
This could cause digestive issues or inflammation, depending on your sensitivity, any potential allergies, and how many raw legumes you’ve had.
But we almost always cook legumes. This breaks down the lectins, making them safe to eat.
Beans straight from the can have already been cooked, so the lectins have been broken down. Soaking and boiling legumes can also reduce their lectin content.
The few types of legumes that you do eat raw — like sugar snap peas — have very low levels of lectins, compared with other legumes. Typical amounts of these foods are unlikely to cause any harm.
In fact, lectins and other antinutrients may even provide some health benefits.
They have antioxidant properties, and they may help control your blood sugar responses by slowing your digestion.
Scientists are even investigating whether lectins could help treat cancer.
Legumes contain proteins called lectins. Some have high levels, so if you ate these legumes raw, the lectins could be harmful. But we typically cook these foods, like beans and lentils.
So, lectins are nothing to worry about. And eating them could even provide some health benefits.
Tips for adding legumes to your diet
If you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few ways to get more legumes into your meals:
Try hummus and bean dips: Whizzing up chickpeas for homemade hummus is quick and simple. You can make dips with other legumes, like cannellini beans, too.
Spruce up your salads: Try sugar snap or snow peas for fresh texture, peanuts for extra crunch, and chickpeas, fava beans, or pinto beans for substance.
Opt for ease: You can throw canned beans into a dish at a moment’s notice.
Mix things up: Why use one legume when you can use three? A blend of beans offers a wider range of nutrients, flavors, and textures.
Make healthy swaps: Try butter bean stew, chickpea curry, or black bean tacos instead of meat versions. Or serve lentils with a meal instead of white rice or potatoes.
At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition science study in the world. From our research, we know that each of us responds to different foods in different ways.
Our personalized nutrition program can suggest healthy swaps and recipes tailored to your responses. This is especially handy if you’re looking to eat more of certain foods.
Learn more about how it works and take our free quiz.
Legumes are edible pods and seeds. Some examples are beans, peas, and other pulses, like chickpeas and lentils, as well as green beans and peanuts.
They’re high in fiber and protein, and they’re a good source of healthy fats and carbs, as well as minerals and other nutrients.
Legumes also contain antinutrients called lectins. Cooking legumes breaks down their lectins, so these compounds are nothing to worry about.
There’s some evidence that regularly eating plenty of legumes could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. It might also help with weight management.
It’s best to eat a wide range of legumes if you can, as each type contains different micronutrients.
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Could plant lectins become promising anti-tumour drugs for causing autophagic cell death? Cell Proliferation. (2013). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cpr.12054
Dietary legume consumption reduces risk of colorectal cancer: Evidence from a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Scientific Reports. (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4350074/
Effects of dietary pulse consumption on body weight: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2016). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002916523118946
Intake of legumes and cardiovascular disease: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. (2022). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36411221/
Lectin activity in commonly consumed plant-based foods: Calling for method harmonization and risk assessment. Foods. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8618113/
Legume consumption is inversely associated with type 2 diabetes incidence in adults: A prospective assessment from the PREDIMED study. Clinical Nutrition. (2018). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28392166/
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Non-soy legume consumption lowers cholesterol levels: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. (2011). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0939475309002117
Nutritional and health implications of legumes. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research. (2013). https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=977be8ec2699b4c1403b2449745bc7039b48e750
Peanuts, all types, raw. (2019). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172430/nutrients
Peas, green, cooked, boiled, drained, with salt. (2019). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170102/nutrients
The first global list of all legume species. (2022). https://www.kew.org/read-and-watch/legume-checklist