High in protein, low in fat, nutrient dense and good for the environment what's not to love about pulses? [Photo: Bigstock]

Celebrating the International Year of Pulses 2016

2 March, 2016

In case you didn’t know 2016 is the United Nations International Year of Pulses – and there’s every good reason to celebrate these fantastic, genuinely super foods.

Pulses belong to the legume family, which includes more than 13,000 different species of plants, all of which produce grains or seeds that are enclosed in a pod.

Pulses are the edible seeds of these plants. Specifically the term ‘pulse’ refers to those crops that are harvested for their dried seeds. Dried peas, beans (including kidney, haricot, butterbean, adzuki and mungo beans), lentils, black-eyed peas, dried garden and field peas and chickpeas are the most common varieties of pulses.

If you’ve never really thought about pulses before, here’s some of the best reasons why they are the ultimate healthy people, healthy planet food.

Good fibre

Fibre includes all parts of plant foods that your body can’t digest or absorb. Pulses are very high in fibre, containing both soluble and insoluble fibres. While soluble fibre helps to decrease blood cholesterol levels and control blood sugar levels, insoluble fibre helps with digestion and regularity. Most of us are not getting the recommended daily intake of fibre each day – 38g/day for men and 25 g/day for women.

Just 125g  (around ½ a cup) of pulses per day provides 7 – 17g of fibre.

Complex carbohydrates

Besides fibre, pulses contain other complex carbohydrates like resistant and slowly digestible starch as well as oligosaccharides (a type of complex carbohydrate). Resistant starch and oligosaccharides behave like fibre in the body because they are not digested or absorbed. Oligosaccharides also act as prebiotics feeding and encouraging the growth of healthy flora in the gut.

In contrast, slowly digestible starch does get digested completely in the small intestine but this happens at a slow rate which make pulses a low-glycaemic index food which helps keep the body’s blood sugar levels on an even keel.

High in protein

As a plant food, pulses are unique because, in addition to complex carbohydrates, they are also high in protein.

Typically they contain about twice the amount of protein found in whole grain cereals like wheat, oats, barley and rice. Pulses have higher amounts of the essential amino acid lysine whereas cereals have higher amounts of the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine so blending pulses with cereals or nuts results in a meal with better quality protein that contains all essential amino acids in appropriate amounts. This is particularly important for people eating vegetarian or vegan diets.

Nutrient dense

Adding more pulses to your diet is a great way to get more essential vitamins and minerals in a relatively low amount of calories. Some of the key minerals in pulses include iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Pulses are also particularly abundant in B vitamins including folate, thiamine and niacin.

Good for your health

A 2012 in the British Journal of Nutrition investigated the potential of a pulse-based diet in individuals 50 years or older for reducing cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. A total of 108 men and women were randomised to eat around 150 g per day dry-weight of pulse-based foods or their regular diet for 2 months.

Compared with the regular diet, the pulse-based diet decreased total cholesterol by 8.3% and LDL-cholesterol (the ‘bad’ kind) by 7.9%, enough say the researchers to lower those people’s risk of CVD.

Then in 2014 a meta-analysis of existing research found that that eating pulses for at least three weeks significantly reduced LDL-cholesterol levels, which can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.

The average dose of pulses consumed in the studies was 130g per day, equivalent to about ½ to ¾ cup of pulses. Pulse consumption lowered LDL-cholesterol levels by about 5%. This reduction translates to a 5 to 6% reduction in events like heart attack or stroke.

Another small 2012 study found that adding pulses to your diet can significantly reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, especially if you are already overweight. Eating five cups of pulses including yellow peas, chickpeas, navy beans and lentils per day resulted not only in weight loss but better insulin sensitivity. While Iranian researchers have also found that those who ate the most pulses were the least likely to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.

Good for the planet

Pulses already play an important role in food security in the Developing World, as well as being a cornerstone ingredient in humanitarian aid. But they also bring many environmental bonuses that help all of us.

For farmers they are an important component of crop rotations, they require less fertilisers than other crops and they are a low carbon source of protein.

Legumes are part of the rotational crops farmers can use to maintain soil fertility. Pulses have help fix nitrogen in the soil, and help feed soil microbes, helping to naturally maintain soil health, offers greater protection against disease-causing bacteria and fungi and improve yields.

Pulses help us save water. For instance, the water footprints of a kilogram of beef, pork, chicken and soybeans are 43, 18, 11 and 5 times higher than the water footprint of pulses.

They also have a lower carbon footprint than most animal sources of protein. In fact, it is estimated that 1kg legumes only emits 0.5kg in CO2 equivalent, whereas 1kg of beef produces 9.5 kg in CO2 equivalent.

Get more

There are lots of easy ways to add more pulses to your diet. Some  of  the  best  loved  foods  include pulses  as  a  main  ingredient in baked  beans,  hummus, falafels,  soups,  stews,  curries,  tacos, dals  and  more.

But pulses can be used for far more than soups and chilies.  Lentil and bean purees and pulse flours are a great way to reduce fat and increase fibre and protein in baked goods. Snacks like hummus and crackers combining pulses and cereal grains to increase fibre and protein. If you are watching your weight substitute carrots or other fresh veg for the crackers.

Why not try including pulses in your diet once a day for a couple of months and see how you feel?! There are so many great varieties you could have something new each day.

As part of the International Year of Pulses many countries have run competitions for new dishes, or published recipes for traditional pulse-based dishes. Check out the Australian winner Quinoa, black lentil & roasted barley salad on our recipe pages as well as our own Apricot and chickpea salad and Spicy bean mini-wraps.

See also our health tips section for ways to Get more pulses into your diet with cooking suggestions.