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The Pluses of Pulses

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Its campaign goals are to increase awareness of the benefits of pulses “as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.”

What they are: Pulses are the seeds of plants in the legume family and include beans, lentils, chickpeas, and dry peas. The name comes from the Latin puls, meaning “thick gruel, porridge, mush.” Farmed for thousands of years, pulses are a mainstay in many cuisines worldwide, as found in such dishes as hummus and falafel (from the Middle East), daal (from India), cassoulet (from Southern France), and hlelem (from Tunisia). There are also traditional rice and bean dishes (from Latin America) and, of course, chili (popularized in Texas).

Why they’re good for you: Pulses are rich in protein, fiber (particularly soluble fiber), potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and other nutrients, as well as phytochemicals (including saponins and tannins). Studies have linked regular consumption of these foods to improved blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood sugar control, and other cardiometabolic risk factors.

Pulses are also good for weight control due to the satiating effects of their fiber and protein—that is, they make you feel full and thus help prevent overeating. And as with other high-fiber foods, they may even reduce actual calorie absorption slightly. An analysis of 21 randomized controlled clinical trials, published in 2016 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found small weight reductions (and no weight gain) in people consuming about one serving (½ cup to ¾ cup) a day of pulses over 4 to 10 weeks, with higher-quality studies showing greater benefits. The studies, which included 940 mostly overweight or obese middle-aged men and women, substituted pulses for other foods, matched for calories.

Why they’re good for the planet: According to the FAO, pulses are “highly water efficient” (it takes just 6 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of lentils or split peas, for instance, compared to 520 and 1,560 gallons needed for chicken and beef, respectively). What’s more, they are an “unexpected ally against climate change,” because they have a smaller carbon footprint, meaning that their production leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Pulse farming is good for farmers, too, since these crops can be cultivated in a variety of climates and even in poor soil conditions.

Why they’re good for your wallet: Pulses are a nutritional and financial bargain, having among the most favorable overall nutrient-to-price ratios, according to a University of Washington study. Canned beans cost more than dried but still provide lots of nutritional bang for your buck.

Also see our recipes for beans and lentils.