Key Ingredients: Pulses, the Magical Food

Cooks are finally discovering legumes, adding interest and health to their menus. 

Pulse a—a type of legume, not heart rates (though research shows that eating pulses is a heart-healthy strategy)—are harvested solely for their dry grains and exclude such legumes as peanuts, soybeans and peas.

A Healthy Staple

Long popular as part of the vegetarian diet, the protein found in legumes doesn’t contain enough of certain essential amino acids to make the protein complete. However, by combining legumes with complementary foods such as grains, seeds or nuts, the protein becomes complete. And it’s not necessary to eat these food combinations together, as long as there is a mix throughout the day. However, the food combinations are so natural—beans and rice or a bean spread on whole wheat bread—that it is likely you would eat them together.

Pulses are low in fat, a great source of vegetable protein, high in fibre, loaded with vitamins, and minerals, calcium, potassium and iron, and are a source of energy-giving carbohydrates. They’re excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that supports the growth of maternal and fetal tissue, and is linked to lowered risk of some cancers. Pulses have a low glycemic index, making them a good choice for people with diabetes or insulin resistance.

Keep the Bloating Down

But of course, everyone knows pulses may produce gas and bloating. Here are some tips to control it. Add pulses to your diet gradually; cook them thoroughly; rinse canned pulses before cooking; and drink lots of water when you eat them.

Health News: Pulses and Legumes

Diabetes. An increased intake of legumes could reduce risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by about 40 percent, according to researchers from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study (a population-based study whose participants are being monitored for the occurrence of several diseases). They assessed the diets of more than 64,000 women over 41⁄2 years. Of all subjects, those who had the highest intake of legumes had a significantly lower incidence of the disease, adding further evidence to the beneficial effects of this food.

Coronary heart disease.
Data from a large study of more than 9,600 healthy adults showed that those who ate legumes four or more times a week had a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who ate them once a week or less. An analysis of 11 clinical trials showed that legumes contributed to heart health by lowering LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides (a form of fat made in the body). Researchers attribute this positive benefit to the food’s soluble fibre, vegetable protein and numerous plant chemicals.

There is some evidence that legumes may decrease risk of developing prostate cancer. This may be due, in part, to their plant chemicals such as saponins and phytosterols.


Bonnie Stern has been teaching people to have fun in the kitchen, to eat more healthfully and to nourish their families since she started her cooking school in 1973.


Fran Berkoff is a consulting dietitian/nutritionist in Toronto, as well as a columnist for newspapers and magazines, and co-author or several books.