Beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, are found to be a healthy food choice in a number of ways. They have close to twice the amount of protein of cereals grains, high levels of dietary fibreand important vitamins, and minerals. Nutritionally, they contain complex carbohydrates(i.e., fibre, resistant or slowly digested starch) vegetable protein, and vitamins and minerals (i.e., folate, potassium, iron), as well as antioxidants and a small fat content. Their fibre content and resistant starch (prebiotics) help stimulate growth of good bacteria in the colon and enable digestive health in general. The high protein content and complex carbohydrates provide longer lasting energy, which is beneficial for sports or endurance activities. The following points explain the important role that pulses can play in health management (Pulse Canada, 2007, Nutrition and health fact sheets). A greater awareness of the health benefits of pulses could encourage increased consumption in the North American food market.
Special Diets – Pulses do not contain gluten, therefore they provide an additional food choice for people that are gluten intolerant, or those with celiac disease. Celiac disease causes damage to the small intestine, which inhibits the absorption of nutrients and cannot tolerate gluten protein. Pulses are a key part of vegetarian diets since they are high in protein and contain the amino acid lysine. Lysine combined with the amino acid methionine, found in cereals, provides a balanced protein diet.
Weight Management – Pulses can play an important part in weight maintenance, due to their profile of high fibre, complex carbohydrates and protein, low fat and low caloric density. They have a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that they do not cause a sharp spike in blood sugar levels. With their slow release of energy, there is an earlier sense of fullness during a meal (satiety). There is preliminary evidence that pulses can help with weight management, however further studies are needed to confirm this..
Diabetes – Since the glycemic index (GI) is low in pulses (i.e., foods with GI <55), they are a good food choice for people with diabetes. Pulses have a slow release of glucose when consumed, resulting in minimal fluctuations in blood glucose levels and a more stable insulin response.
Cardiovascular disease - CVD accounts for 30% of deaths worldwide, and is the leading cause of death in industrialized countries. Regular consumption of pulses can help to reduce serum cholesterol and triglycerides – two major risk factors in CVD (heart disease). They also have positive effects on blood pressure, blood glucose and insulin moderation and they lessen the chances of obesity. Their nutritional composition, as well as containing antioxidants and other phytochemcials, helps support a heart-healthy diet. They are low in fat and sodium, have minimal amounts of saturated fatty acids, and contain no cholesterol.
Cancer - In North America, cancer is the second leading cause of death (i.e., one in four deaths). Organizations are showing support in the consumption of pulses to reduce the risks of cancer. These include the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA), the American Institute of Cancer Research, the Canadian Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund. Although evidence for consuming sufficient quantities of pulses to protect against cancer has not been confirmed, there are various anticarcinogenic components within pulses, including dietary fibre and folate.