Legumes in diet

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Legumes, such as beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils, have lots of potential as health foods because they provide an inexpensive source of plant protein and dietary fibre. In addition, they have a low glycaemic index and contain small amounts of iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. With such an impressive nutritional profile, it is not surprising that research shows legumes may help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

Legumes are one of the main food types included in a typical Mediterranean diet, which tends to be high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and fish, with olive oil as the main source of fat. Studies have consistently reported this diet can assist in reducing the risk of early death, as well as lowering the risk of developing diabetes and obesity.

Although a Mediterranean diet is not commonly consumed outside its European region of origin, many Mediterranean migrants are said to retain their traditional diets after settling in Australia. Recommendations for a healthy diet in Australia are based on research findings, which are published in dietary guidelines. These Australian recommendations include regular consumption of legumes, either as a vegetable or as a meat alternative. While the current Australian Dietary Guidelines do not provide recommendations for weekly consumption of legumes, the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (GLNC) urges people to eat legumes at least two to three times a week as part of a balanced diet.

This GLNC recommendation has been explored in a recent study that assessed the diet quality of people aged 49 years and older. Preliminary findings of the study, which were presented at a joint Annual Scientific Meeting of the Nutrition Society of Australia and the Nutrition Society of New Zealand in December 2013, suggest that the adults studied were not eating enough legumes. The research also showed that people who consumed at least two serves of legumes a week had higher-quality diets. This finding has important health implications because previous studies of Australians older than 49 years have linked higher-quality diets with a reduced risk of early death and impaired fasting glucose (commonly known as pre-diabetes) and an overall better quality of life.

Research to determine the role of legumes in contributing to dietary health is an ongoing priority for the GLNC, and the findings of these studies will be published in the next Australian Dietary Guidelines.

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