Almost by default, legumes are a staple of any plant-based diet. But if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’ve probably heard the same old question:
“But how do you get your protein?”
It’s easy to scoff at the obliviousness of such a question. After all, But it can also be a useful prompt to check in with yourself. You may be getting plenty of protein in your diet, but could you stand to mix it up a little more?
Just What Are Legumes, Exactly?
Legumes comprise dozens of plant-based protein sources. Lentils, beans, peanuts, and peas are all members of the legume family: a large, diverse family of plants (and their seeds). There are many different types of legumes, each with distinct textures and flavors.
The benefits of legumes are just as diverse.
Legumes are, in general, higher in protein than many other plant-based foods.1
But that’s not the only reason to keep them in your diet. Legumes also provide many other essential nutrients, including:
- Complex carbohydrates, including dietary fiber
- Vitamins and minerals
Legumes also have a low glycemic index, which means they’re great for your overall cardiovascular health.2 And you can use them in hundreds of easy, delicious recipes that will leave you feeling full — but never leave you feeling bored.
A Hill Of Beans (and Lentils)
When you think of legumes, beans and lentils are usually the first things that spring to mind. They’re known as grain legumes (as opposed to forage legumes, like alfalfa). And even within this one category, there’s incredible variety. Here are a few grain legumes that stand out.
Green beans are delicious raw, of course. But cooked and raw green beans can have different health benefits.
Unprocessed green beans have a higher chlorophyll content, which can be instrumental in easing various bodily ailments.3
Cooking green beans may slightly diminish that bioavailable chlorophyll. But it will also release more of their valuable carotenoids, like ß-carotene and lutein.4 Those nutrients can be helpful for those working toward fat and weight loss.5
So freeze them, grill them, blanche them — you can’t go wrong with green beans!
You don’t need a nice chianti to enjoy fava beans. Their dense texture makes them a satisfying dish all on their own. They’re packed with protein and fiber.6
They also contain high levels of L-DOPA, a valuable neurotransmitter precursor.7 And for pregnant women, fava beans can be a great source of folic acid, iron, and calcium.8
Raw fava beans do contain some anti-nutritional factors that may counteract some of the beans’ healthful qualities. But research has shown that simply soaking and cooking fava beans can reduce those factors by 100%. It also reduces their sugar content, leaving behind nothing but nutrients — and flavor!9
Cannellini beans, also known as white kidney beans, are one of the most iron-rich foods you can find.10
They also contain alpha-amylase inhibitors, which may reduce the rate at which your body absorbs carbohydrates.This can help with weight loss, support healthy blood sugar levels, and support heart health.11
Call them garbanzo beans, call them chickpeas — whatever you call them, they’re a nutrient-rich food that’s been enhancing human health for centuries. The ancient Egyptians called the chickpea “hawk face,” because of its beaked appearance.12
Whether roasted or raw, chickpeas go great with salads. They’re also the main ingredient in hummus, which is a great source of nutrients, including:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin C
In fact, hummus is much more nutrient-dense than most other dips. That makes it perfect for those green beans you’ll be serving on your crudite platter!13
Brown, red, green, yellow, or black: lentils are colorful legumes. Whatever their hue, they all share in common some essential health benefits.
Even more than beans, lentils have a high amount of dietary fiber. They’re low in fat and sodium, but high in potassium. They also have high quantities of prebiotics, which serve as food for your intestinal bacteria.14
- Help improve calcium absorption
- Feed your gut bacteria, to promote lasting digestive balance
- Help your body process carbohydrates more quickly (which means more available energy when you need it)15
Lentils are also protein-rich. Some studies have shown that the body absorbs protein from lentils as efficiently as it does animal protein.16 And when sprouted, lentils contain even higher concentrations of essential amino acids.17
Also, if you’re concerned about your blood sugar levels, lentils are a great low-glycemic alternative to rice or potatoes.18
Despite their name, black-eyed peas are actually a kind of bean. But a bean by any other name is just as savory… and just as nutritious.
Black-eyed peas are a variety of cowpea. They’ve long been a staple of Southern home cooking, and with good reason. Members of the cowpea family may have anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive properties.19
But Wait, There’s More!
Other popular grain legumes include:
- Navy beans
- Black beans
- Mung beans
- Pinto beans
- Red kidney beans
- Lima beans
Canned beans sometimes have different nutrient values than dried beans.20 Whether dried or canned, though, they’ll make for a healthy, fulfilling dish.
Peas and Q’s
Like beans and lentils, peas are legumes. And like beans and lentils, they have numerous health benefits. In addition to having a low glycemic index, they contain saponins, which may help to support healthy cholesterol. They also contain galactose oligosaccharides, which may have beneficial prebiotic effects.21
And you’ll never get bored with peas. You can mash or puree them into a variety of homemade soups (though canned soups are great, too). You can also enjoy them as a side dish. Popular types of peas include:
- Split peas (which come in green and yellow varieties)
- Sugar snap peas
- Snow peas
- Garden peas
There’s another type of grain legume that often gets overlooked: the peanut.
Like black-eyed peas, peanuts have a name that’s a little misleading. They’re more “pea” than “nut” — in fact, they’re not actually nuts at all. They’re another variety of grain legume.
They’re certainly versatile: George Washington Carver identified over 300 uses for them. Peanuts have more protein than any actual nut. They’re particularly high in the amino acid arginine, which is essential for a healthy immune system.
Peanuts are also high in monounsaturated fatty acids — “good fats” — and complex carbohydrates. Peanuts, and peanut butter, make great snacks for a quick energy boost.22
Mix It Up A Little
Legumes are great for soups, salads, and side dishes. They’re also a great ingredient for some unconventional recipes. For example, pureed cannellini beans can make a great butter substitute in homemade cookies.23
And all that variety is important for more than just your taste buds. There are as many benefits of legumes as there are types of legumes. So, the next time someone asks you where you get your protein, ask them how much time they’ve got — because the answer is longer than they might expect!
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12 Danker, Joel S. The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.