Legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas and the like) can be a good, environment-friendly source of plant-based protein.

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When Nick Wiseman dreamed up his Washington, D.C., restaurant Little Sesame, he had a simple mission. Hummus, a chickpea-based spread, is a kitchen staple for many Americans—but it's often seen as an add-on, not the main course. Wiseman's mission? Reposition hummus as the main player in flavorful bowls, pita sandwiches and salads.

Of course, the food is healthy and delicious, but Wiseman is just as concerned about where that food comes from and how it impacts the earth. Little Sesame sources its chickpeas from a Montana grower dedicated to regenerative farming, a type of agriculture that rebuilds organic-matter biodiversity in the soil, which helps reverse climate change by reducing carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.

Just as Starbucks transformed how people thought about coffee as part of their everyday routines, Wiseman wants to promote hummus as a pantry essential—for both the health of Americans and the earth they live on. "We want our brand to connect the dots between what we eat and how it impacts our health and the planet," he says. "It's not just about putting hummus bowls and pita sandwiches on our menu, but promoting a healthy, active, good-for-the-planet lifestyle."

Lentil Chili
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

Legumes & The Environment

Growing chickpeas on regenerative farms isn't the only way to protect the environment. Becky Ramsing, M.P.H., a senior program officer of food communities and public health at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, says all legumes— chickpeas, beans, lentils and peas, for example— play a major role in promoting sustainability.

One of the biggest threats to the earth's well-being is greenhouse-gas emissions, which trap heat from the sun in the earth's atmosphere and cause the planet to get hotter. Because meat production is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse-gas-related climate change, reducing animal protein intake is an important step toward protecting the environment.

Along with reducing meat production and consumption, legumes come with several environmental benefits of their own. According to Gerd Bobe, Ph.D., an associate professor of agricultural sciences at Oregon State University, legumes self-fertilize by absorbing nitrogen from the environment, which means they protect the atmosphere from excess nitrogen. And because farmers need less fertilizer to grow legumes, less nitrogen from that fertilizer ends up in the atmosphere.

Bobe says legumes are also highly water efficient, which means that growing them takes a lot less water than producing animal products. For example, to produce a single kilogram of lentils, a farmer only needs 50 liters of water. To produce the same amount of chicken requires 4,325 liters of water; the amount for beef is even higher.

Other benefits: legumes are relatively inexpensive, are easy to produce and can grow almost anywhere—even in poor soil conditions—which Bobe says could help decrease world hunger and promote individual economic stability. Dry and canned foods also take a lot longer to spoil than, say, meat or vegetables, which results in less food waste.

The Health Benefits of Legumes

Legumes are often seen as an essential protein for vegetarian and plant-based diets, but a growing body of scientific research suggests everyone can benefit from upping their legume intake.

According to Bobe, legumes—which, for his research purposes, he defines primarily as beans, chickpeas and lentils—are an ideal source of protein. For one, beans contain a comparable amount of protein to meat—for example, one cup of black beans contains almost as much protein as three ounces of beef.

But unlike animal proteins, legumes don't contain much fat and are practically free of saturated fat and cholesterol, both of which are shown to contribute to heart disease risk. Another difference from animal protein: legumes are naturally high in fiber, which Bobe says helps bind toxins and cholesterol in the gut and promotes healthy digestion.

Chef Rani Polak, M.D., M.B.A., founding director of the Culinary Healthcare Education Fundamentals Coaching program at the Harvard Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, says legumes are ideal for people watching their weight or managing diabetes. Not only are they a complex carb with a low-glycemic index, but they're also lower in calories than most animal-based proteins.

Legumes also offer important micronutrients, such as zinc, potassium, B vitamins, iron, manganese and phosphorus. And like fruits and vegetables, many legumes are rich in antioxidants.

Thanks to their nutritional content, there's plenty of scientific evidence that legumes play a role in preventing and managing diseases. Bobe's research suggests antioxidant content can play a role in reducing cancer risk. And according to a 2015 paper in Clinical Diabetes, legume consumption can promote weight loss, help people manage type 2 diabetes, lower total and LDL cholesterol lev- els and reduce blood pressure. As a result, Ramsing says, ample legume consumption can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Much of the research on legumes, including Bobe's, focuses on dried beans, but canned beans don't have any major nutritional differences, says Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., a culinary nutrition expert in Westchester, New York. "People think they're high in sodium or contain preservatives, but the truth is, canned foods are only 1% of our sodium intake," she says. "The majority of sodium comes from highly processed foods and fast foods." If you're trying to decrease your sodium intake, Levinson says, rinsing and draining the beans can remove about 40% of the added sodium.

How to Eat More Legumes

While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend eating 1.5 cups of beans each week, Ramsing says Americans currently consume an average of only 1/3 cup a week. Part of increasing legume intake among Americans means demystifying them, understanding not only the ways they promote physical and environmental health, but how to incorporate them into a diet.

The first thing to know? Those beans, chickpeas and lentils in your pantry can taste just as delicious as any other food when you make the same effort to season them. "It can be daunting to cook legumes, but they deserve the same attention you'd give other everyday proteins," says Wiseman. "We take so much time cooking meat and fish, and if you give the same attention to beans, they can be delicious. It just takes time and effort to get there in your own life."

If you want to integrate more legumes into your diet, Bobe suggests starting small. Since they're a high-fiber, complex carbohydrate, too many of the same legumes can cause a bit of bloating, so focus on eating a variety of legume types in small amounts throughout the day.

The same rule applies to cooking: dip your toes in to find what you like and what works best for your routine. If you're new to the legume world, start with simple recipes. Dry chickpeas, for example, need to be soaked overnight, then cooked for 90 minutes. Orange lentils don't need to be soaked at all, and it takes only five minutes to cook them. "If you're short of time and don't want to mess around in the kitchen, focus on easy-to-prepare legumes," Polak says. You can buy canned or even frozen varieties if soaking and hours of cooking don't work for your schedule.

Once you find legumes you like, slowly swap them with your typical animal proteins or starchy foods. For example, you could eat a few ounces of meat and half a cup of beans at dinner, or replace your noodles or potatoes with legumes.

Legumes are consumed around the world and are staples in many cultures, so Ramsing says international foods are a great way to try new beans, along with new flavors and ingredients. "The best thing is to diversify your legume intake by using them in different ways, even in a single meal," Bobe says.

For a protein and general nutrition boost in any meal, Levinson recommends adding pureed beans to sauces, soups and casseroles. "For example, I have a pasta recipe where I puree sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, chickpeas and onions," she says. "It's like a pasta sauce, but a whole lot healthier." You can also whip up your own bean-based burgers or include beans as an addition to grain salads, adding your favorite fresh herbs to boost the flavor.

No matter what you cook, focus on sustainability. As with any habit, you'll go a lot further if you prioritize progress instead of perfection. "For example, you can take one day of the week, such as 'meat- less Monday,' to try beans," Ramsing says. "Small changes make a big difference—and if many of us make these small changes, the impact grows.

This article first appeared in EatingWell, Protein.