Legumes – the forgotten health service

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While life expectancies have never been higher, so too are diet-related diseases. Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a variety of cancers are so common today that many may think that these preventable diseases are in fact inevitable. This could not be further from the truth. There are a multitude of dietary and lifestyle choices or ‘weapons of risk reduction’ that individuals can adopt to add years to life and life to years.

Legumes, an often-forgotten food group, have huge potential as a weapon of risk reduction to fight off disease in the long term.

Lessons from the longest-lived

In recent decades, researchers have studied the longest-lived communities around the world where people suffer a fraction of the diet and lifestyle-related diseases that plague many countries today.

Image of food

Mashed chickpeas are the main ingredient in hummus, a Middle Eastern dip or spread consumed around the globe.

PHOTO: Ben Dearnley

These unique regions around the world, known as ‘blue zones’, provide us with best-practice guidelines to achieve and maintain health, as well as happiness, over one’s life span.

Blue zones include the Mediterranean regions of Sardinia in Italy and Icaria in Greece, as well as Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in the US, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. From studying these populations, researchers have identified universal themes fundamental to health and happiness. When it comes to diet, an overriding theme from these blue zones is an emphasis on legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas, within a mostly plant-based diet.

The Sardinian diet is particularly high in faba beans and the Icarians enjoy a diet rich in chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils. People in Okinawa and the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda have high intakes of soy from beans, tofu and soy milk, while the people of the Nicoya Peninsula eat a variety of beans with rice as a staple in their diet.

This is not to say that legumes are the only foods contributing to health in these diets, which are also rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. However, the prominence of legumes in these populations is noteworthy as legumes are a largely forgotten food group in Australia – evidenced by very low legume consumption and the absence of a quantified target intake in the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

In addition to learnings from the blue zones, the scientific evidence from populations all around the world consistently demonstrates that people with a higher intake of legumes have better health outcomes, including a significantly reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers and improved blood-glucose control.

Legumes’ potential

In a recent analysis of the 2011 Australian Health Survey, it was found that people who ate legumes had higher total daily intakes of fibre (30.4 versus 21.9 grams), protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, iodine and folate compared with non-consumers.

In addition to essential nutrients, legumes are also rich in protective phytonutrients, which are also likely to contribute to the associated health benefits observed in long-term consumers.

When it comes to Australian diets, the most recent National Nutrition Survey found that, on average, Australians eat less than 7.5g of legumes each day.

What’s the roadblock?

The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council’s (GLNC) 2014 Grains and Legumes Consumption and Attitudinal Study found that the biggest barrier to legume consumption was that Australians simply do not think to include them in their meals. However, legumes are widely accessible and affordable so there is abundant potential for Australians to improve their diet quality.

A good starting goal for those who do not eat legumes regularly is to aim to eat a variety of legumes at least two to three times each week as part of a balanced diet. This can easily be achieved by adding chickpeas or beans to salads, enjoying hummus dip as a snack, or simply adding a can of drained and rinsed beans or lentils to your favourite recipe, for example, spaghetti bolognaise with red lentils.

More information:

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