by Courtney Rose-Davis, APD, PhD Candidate
These days, we’re seeing more and more research suggesting that legumes possess significant health benefits, different to that of other food groups. Studies suggest that consuming legumes 4 times per week, compared to only once, reduces risk of coronary heart disease [1,2]. When legumes are added to our diet, levels of total and LDL cholesterol are lowered . Legumes, including chickpeas, lentils, kidney, fava and black beans, amongst others, are a key feature of the Mediterranean diet, which is predominantly eaten by people living coastally in Southern Europe . This balanced diet has been proven to lower our risk of heart disease and diabetes. Although just one part of this dietary pattern, legumes provide important nutrients including protein, fibre and other minerals, especially as the Mediterranean diet is low in meat. In terms of health benefits, one study showed that the Mediterranean diet would only be 90% as effective if legumes were excluded .
In Australia the story is very different, where adults eat very few legumes. Data from the most recent National Nutrition Survey suggests legume intake is only 20 g/week for males, and 16 g/week for females . The health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet with legumes could be enormous; however this previously hadn’t been well studied. So we conducted a research trial where older Australians (aged >64 years) were asked to follow a Mediterranean diet for 6 months. Around 80 participants were asked to consume at least 3 servings of legumes per week, at a serving size of 75 g or half a cup (225 g/week). Three servings of legumes were provided to participants as canned legumes, to make this easier for them. The participants had their diets analysed before they commenced the study and median legume intake was 0 grams/week, meaning at least half the study participants were eating no legumes at all. The average intake however was 140g/week, which was quite high compared with national data, however still less than half the amount needed to provide health benefits.
Surprisingly, over the course of the study, legume intake increased to an average of 340g/week, with the median increasing from 0 to 231 g/week. Anecdotally, participants said they found legumes not only tasty, but versatile and useful when making filling lunches and salads. Recipes and instructions to incorporate legumes were provided, such as making legume patties and dips, adding legumes to soups, casseroles and salads and even replacing some meat with legumes.
It’s difficult to say with certainty which of these factors contributed to the legume increase, however, it appears that with some instruction and encouragement, older Australians could greatly increase their intake and enjoy legumes more often. The easy provision of legumes might have played a large role, although participants clearly went and bought their own on top of our provisions suggesting that participants genuinely enjoyed this part of their diet. It’s most likely that several factors contributed, including providing them for free, provision of innovative recipes, additional suggestions on how to incorporate them in their daily diet, but most importantly – the enjoyment factor. Legume intake likely promoted the intake of other healthful dietary components too, like olive oil and vegetables, as these are often consumed together.
The potential health benefits of such a change are exciting! Legumes on their own have been associated with considerable health benefits, and even more so when being consumed as part of the Mediterranean diet. Our encouraging results suggest that given the right resources, such as recipe inspiration and handy tips, most people can become a legume fan. Here are our easy tips to help you enjoy legumes more frequently:
- If using canned legumes, make sure you rinse them well before using – this can help reduce the sodium content by up to 40%.
- If using dried legumes, soak and cook in large batches and freeze in individual portions for quick and easy additions to midweek meals.
- Use lentils or black beans as a substitute for mincemeat – mix into patties, meatballs, spaghetti bolognaise and taco mince.
- Add to salads for a filling protein and fibre hit.
- Add to soups and casseroles to bulk out.
- Mix in with pasta dishes – this works especially well with lentils and chickpeas.
- Make nachos with kidney beans or black beans.
- Add mixed legumes to tomato, onion and canned fish and drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice for a delicious, Mediterranean salad.
- Bazzano, L.A.; He, J.; Ogden, L.; Loria, C.M.; Vupputuri, S.; Myers, L.; Whelton, P.K. Legume consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women. Arch. Intern. Med. 2001, 161, 2573-2578. DOI:
- Afshin, A.; Micha, R.; Khatibzadeh, S.; Mozaffarian, D. Consumption of nuts and legumes and risk of incident ischemic heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2014, 100, 278-288. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.113.076901.
- Bazzano, L.; Thompson, A.; Tees, M.; Nguyen, C.; Winham, D. Non-soy legume consumption lowers choletserol levels: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr. Metab. Cardiovasc. Dis. 2011, 21, 94-103. DOI: 10.1016/j.numecd.2009.08.012.
- Trichopoulou, A.; Lagiou, P. Healthy traditional Mediterranean diet: An expression of culture, history, and lifestyle. Nutr. Rev. 1997, 55, 383-389. DOI: none.
- Trichopoulou, A.; Bamia, C.; Trichopoulos, D. Anatomy of health effects of Mediterranean diet: Greek EPIC prospective cohort study. BMJ 2009, 338, 26-29. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b2337.
- Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12 – Australia. Table 5.1 Mean daily food intake (grams). Statistics, A.B.o., Ed. Australian Bureau of Statistics: Canberra, ACT, Australia.