Good Nutrition and Healthy Eating with Legumes

Nutritious and Earthy, Legumes Boost Your Overall Health

Dry Beans
Dry Beans. Photo © USDA, Keith Weller photographer

Legumes are a type of vegetable that has a seed pod –- beans, lentils, peas, and even peanuts –- that can be cooked and eaten in curry, stew, soup, and salad. Beans have enough protein that they are often used as meat substitutes. Lentils go back to early Bible times and were so fragrant and tasty that Esau traded his inheritance to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of red lentil stew. Legumes are a very healthy food, and while they don't fight breast cancer specifically, they can boost your overall health.

Legumes and Healthy Eating

In his book Anticancer Dr. David Servan-Schreiber suggests that we eat fewer potatoes and more legumes, which are lower on the glycemic index. Legumes are higher in fiber than potatoes, and will give you a feeling of fullness that sticks with you longer. If chemotherapy for breast cancer has given you constipation, the fiber in beans can help relieve your symptoms. High glycemic foods cause our bodies to secrete insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). These hormones promote cell growth and inflammation, which can weaken your resistance to the development of cancer.

Legumes – Loaded with Nutritional Value

Beans, peas, and lentils are naturally low in fat, and high in dietary fiber. They come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, and are available as fresh, dried, canned or frozen products. While beans and lentils contain carbohydrates, they also are high in folate, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, calcium, and selenium.

Legumes have many of the B vitamins and are rich in antioxidants –- these can prevent cell damage. Many kinds of beans, including soybeans, are rich in saponins –- an anti-inflammatory compound which helps your immune system protect you against cancer while it lowers your cholesterol. Just don't overcook your beans, because overcooking and tossing out the pot liquors can result in loss of saponins.

Plant Estrogens In Legumes

The flavonoids found in soybeans, garbanzo beans, and chickpeas may act like the female hormone estrogen. Estrogen-like substances from these plant sources are called phytoestrogens, and may give you some relief from menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes. Don't overdo legumes, though –- if you've had estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer, be careful to avoid large doses of any kind of estrogen, even plant estrogens.

Tips for Reducing Flatulence from Beans

Beans can cause intestinal gas, or flatulence, because they contain a sugar –- oligosaccharide -- that your digestion can't break down. You can take an enzyme product such as Beano, to help prevent gas. Another way to prevent gas is to cook your beans with a pinch of Asafetida (hing powder) added to the cooking liquid. If you can find them, try Anasazi beans (Jacob's cattle beans) –- these "New Mexico Cave Beans" contain only about a quarter of the oligosaccharide that causes gas.

Peas, Lentils, and Good Luck

In the southern United States, there is a long-standing tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, to ensure good luck with finances in the coming year. If you don't eat your peas on the first day of the year, some well-wisher may slip dried black-eye peas into your coat pockets, which is also said to bring good luck.

Stewed lentils brought good fortune to Jacob, who wound up with his father's blessing and the lion's share of all his property, even though he was the younger son. So eat your legumes, and may you have good luck and good health.

American Cancer Society. Benefits of Good Nutrition. Revised: 02/04/2008.

Saponins from edible legumes: chemistry, processing, and health benefits. Shi J, Arunasalam K, Yeung D, Kakuda Y, Mittal G, Jiang Y. J Med Food. 2004 Spring;7(1):67-78.

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