In a previous article, I asked the question, “Is Dairy Healthy for YOU?” and I explained that dairy and legumes are something I call gray area foods, meaning that they have healthful properties and nutrients and while they are good for some, they can be very problematic for others.
Some examples of legumes include:
- Adzuki beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Boston beans
- Dal or Daal
- Fava beans
- Garbanzo beans
- Kidney beans
- Lima beans
- Mung beans
- Navy beans
- Pinto beans
- Split peas
- Red beans
- Refried beans
- Turtle beans
- White beans
Now, let’s talk about why I consider legumes a gray area food and the problems that might manifest if you don’t tolerate legumes well.
Legumes contain high amounts of a certain group of carbohydrates called FODMAPs:
FODMAP is short for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These carbohydrates do not completely digest in the intestinal tract and can ferment in the colon by our intestinal bacteria, leading to digestive distress. Additionally, these sugars increase fluid movement into the large intestine, by a process called osmosis. Both of these actions, fermentation and osmosis, can result in the constellation of symptoms known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS – gas, nausea, abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea (1). If you suffer from IBS or any other gut disorder such as Ulcerative Proctitis or Crohn’s disease, consider removing legumes from your diet for a period of 30 days and then reintroduce each type of legume one at a time. You’ll know immediately and I mean immediately if you are sensitive to legumes. The children’s rhyme – “Beans beans the magical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot!” – really rings true in this case.
Legumes contain something we nutrition geeks call anti-nutrients (2):
Lectins are a family of proteins found in legumes that resist digestion and may damage the lining of the small intestine (3). The way to combat this problem is to properly prepare legumes by either soaking overnight, sprouting or fermenting them (2).
Phytic acid is a compound that impairs the absorption of certain minerals like iron, zinc or calcium. Sounds bad right? Well in reality, as long as you consume sufficient amounts of animal protein, theoretically you shouldn’t be deficient in these minerals. Like with lectins, soaking, sprouting and fermenting greatly reduces phytic acid content (2).
Legumes are not as nutrient dense as other foods:
While legumes do contain beneficial fiber and nutrients like protein, I don’t consider them nutrient dense. First off, plant protein is harder to digest than animal protein. The protein-containing portion of the plant is also the reproductive portion, and Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, protects that portion, thus making it harder to kill (absorb), in order to make it easier for the plant to thrive and reproduce. Additionally, plants contain little, if any bioavailable B12, iron or zinc (4). Ancestral foods like organ meats, pastured raised meats, wild caught fish and eggs from pasture raised hens and vegetables, such as kale and broccoli, rank much higher on the nutrient density scale than legumes (3).
Legumes pack a big carbohydrate punch:
Certain individuals need to avoid a high carbohydrate diet in order to heal their bodies. If you have any of these medical issues: Type II diabetes, pre-diabetes, high triglyceride levels, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, you should probably cut out legumes or limit your overall legume consumption until your health conditions are in check. Additionally, if you are otherwise healthy but still overweight, most likely, you don’t have the activity level to support a high carbohydrate diet. No matter how much fiber or other nutrients present in legumes, the carbohydrates eventually convert to glucose and your body stores the excess glucose as fat (5).
Personally, I don’t tolerate beans well at all. Even as a child, I abhorred any kind of bean, just the thought of them made me queasy and activated my gag reflex. I think when children have such an extreme dislike for certain foods, it may be because they don’t make their little bodies feel good. As an adult, I know that most legumes irritate my gut and exacerbate the symptoms of my autoimmune disease. The only legume I like and tolerate well is lentils, which happen to be the most nutrient dense legume. Occasionally, I’ll enjoy some lentils at a restaurant and I’ll feel just fine. By listening to your body, you begin to learn what fuel (food) it likes to run on.
The only legume that I’m a strong opponent to is soy:
You hear often how healthy soy is – low in fat, high in complete protein and cholesterol free. It’s often cited that Asian cultures have lower incidence of cancer and it’s all due to their intake of soy. Well, first of all, those cultures primarily consume fermented soy in the form of soy sauce, miso, natto and tempeh. Like I stated earlier, fermentation greatly increases the nutrient density of legumes and reduces the anti-nutrient effects. Additionally, they don’t drink soy milk or eat soy-based fake meat products like Tofurky so their consumption of soy is more of a condiment than a main dish or primary source of protein (6).
One of the biggest problems I have with soy is the fact that 93% of the soybean crop in the US is genetically modified or GMO (7) which means the farmers heavily spray them with the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Round-Up. The government says that Round-Up is safe to use on crops but I’m old enough to remember other pesticides and herbicides the government deemed safe and later pulled from use. Excessive use of Round-Up also led to the emergence of “superweeds” – weeds that have developed a tolerance to Round-Up, defeating the entire purpose of genetically modifying the crop (8).
If you eat processed foods, you probably consume quite a bit of soy. Since protein has become the darling of the food manufacturers as of late, everything seems to be touted as high protein. The government subsidizes the production of soy in the US and in result, soy protein has become a very cheap way to add protein to processed food. Anytime you see a product advertised as high protein, read the ingredients and you’ll surely find soy protein isolate listed. Always remember, an isolated form of a food or nutrient doesn’t cut the mustard for us real food folks. Unlike isolated nutrients, whole foods come packed with all the nutrients in the right ratios that our bodies need to thrive.
So there you have it, my guide to figuring out if legumes fit into your healthy real food diet. In conclusion, every individual body really is different, what works for you might not work for someone else. If you suspect a legume intolerance, especially if you suffer from digestive distress, remove them for 30 days, try them again and see how you feel. Like I said above, you will know right away if they’re for you. If you do make legumes a part of your real food diet, make sure to properly prepare them by soaking, sprouting or fermenting and never ever eat them raw.
Do you eat legumes? Have you ever tried eliminating them and then reintroducing them? Let me hear about your experiences!