Nutrition: Put these affordable nutritional powerhouses on your plate

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on February 19, 2013
Your doctor always checks your pulse, but when was the last time you checked your pulses? Before you scratch your head wondering what I mean, pulses – often referred to as legumes – are the edible seeds of leguminous vegetables. The family includes green beans, fresh peas, chick peas, lentils, kidney beans and soybeans. While the fresh versions are favoured by all ages, many people have been known to turn up their collective noses at the dried versions.

Pulses have long been considered peasant food and continue to remain wise selections for the budget conscious. In recent years, as multicultural cuisines increase in popularity and chefs embrace them, pulses are finding a new market.

Considering the scientific research showing a slew of health benefits, it may be time to try adding pulses to your family’s menus.

Not only are they packed with protein, but they’re also a powerhouse of soluble and insoluble fibre, B vitamins, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Protein power

If you’re opting for meatless meals, take a cue from cultures where meat is only served on special occasions. Unlike meat or dairy products, pulses may be lacking in certain amino acids – the so-called building blocks of protein. However, other foods, such as grains, contain the missing amino acids. Combined with pulses they provide a complete protein. In the past, it was thought that you needed to eat these combos at the same time to obtain the protein’s benefits, but this is no longer the case. If there’s a mix of amino acids throughout the day, then having complementary proteins at the same meal is not necessary. But they are a natural together. Take, for instance, hummus with pita or minestrone soup chock full of beans and pasta.

Full of fibre

The fibre in pulses offers an array of health benefits. Though whole grain cereals may come to mind as a remedy for constipation, pulses can certainly give bran a run for its money. Its soluble fibre also supplies perks for weight management and maintaining both healthy blood cholesterol and blood sugar readings, something that is a growing concern in children these days.

Easy to cook with

Lentils and split peas, unlike beans, do not need to be soaked before cooking. But there are plenty of convenience products available that can help to make pulse preparation speedy. You can also buy pulse flours which are a super option for those on gluten-free diets.

Because they’re so versatile, pulses are also easy to incorporate into menus. Kids love chili bean dip with baked tortilla chips or hummus with veggie sticks. Add small amounts to soups, stews or pasta sauces that your family is used to eating. For really picky eaters, start by puréeing small amounts. For example, purée some kidney beans or lentils and mix with a small amount of a tomato sauce. Then add the purée to the entire sauce. The sauce will simply be a little lighter. Increase the amounts of purée over time.

Got gas?

The downside of the fibre in legumes is that it can be gas-inducing. Flatulence is a common complaint and it has definitely impacted the popularity of pulses. No doubt you have heard a ditty or two on the musical attributes of beans. But consider this: the gas produced when you eat beans is actually good for you. Beans act as prebiotics, stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

You can decrease gas production. If the pulses require pre-soaking before cooking, drain the soaking water and use fresh for cooking. If you’re using canned products, rinsing them well will not only combat gas but also decrease the sodium content.

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Vist rosieschwartz.com for her take on healthy eats.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2013.

By Rosie Schwartz, RD| February 19, 2013

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