We’ve been eating pulses – an ancient name for lentils, legumes or beans – for a very long time. Somewhere between 30,000 – 50,000 years, we don’t actually know for sure. Before people settled in areas like the fertile crescent (Mesopotamia) and started cooking grains in nice pots of water, lentils and legumes were foraged by nomads. They pounded or ‘pulsed’ lentils, legumes, seeds and grains into flours. Theses flours were mixed with a little water and oil then spread out on rocks by the campfire. Voila – flatbread! Tasty.

The legume family is huge! Currently, there are more than 40,000 varieties of beans in the gene-banks, however only a few 100 varieties are produced for mass consumption. Fortunately, this is changing and small crop and heirloom farming is helping make more varieties available. A client of mine recently gave me a calendar for Rancho Gordo in Mexico. Beside having a hilarious logo, they have a humble offering of dozens of varieties of beans and a ton of recipes. Locally, we have a number of farmers and heirlooms seed providers like the Snake River Seed Cooperative that are bringing back beans. A quick waltz around the internet and you will find thousands of recipes.

Lentils and legumes still make up huge portions of classical cuisines, in fact there isn’t a traditional cuisine that does not have lentils or legumes as a part of their staple diet. We have the lovely 3 Sisters tradition (beans, corn and squash) of Indigenous Native American communities, the daals of India, cassoulets in France, and  delicious hummus and lentil soups from the Middle Eastern nations. There are likely as many recipes for lentils and legumes as there are varieties.

Before we go further – let’s tackle a few fad ideas that have vilified our precious lentils and legumes. Clearing up the carbohydrate conundrum. 

Besides digestibility (which we will get to) the biggest reason that I hear from clients as to why they don’t eat lentils or legumes is that they are carbohydrates. Mis-characterization and misinformation about carbohydrates have been the bane of nutritionists for a number of reason. It is true, beans are technically a carbohydrate – and you need carbohydrates for energy. That’s how our bodies work. Short chain carbs (or simple carbs) like breads and pastries and pastas, break down too quickly and spike insulin in the body. You get a short burst of unsustainable energy. Long chain carbohydrates (complex carbohydrates, slow carbs, resistant carbs) breakdown slowly, mostly in the small intestines and large intestines. These carbohydrates are high in fiber and they slowly release energy and do not spike the insulin. They actually help regulate blood sugar.  The complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, roots, squashes, lentils, legumes and whole vegetables. Unfortunately, some people have cut beans and lentils out of their diets because they are trying to follow a specific trendy diet. I am a firm believer that most diets have some truth in them. They may be beneficial for short periods of times based on the intention of the person, their health and other concerns, but they are often not sustainable.  I am always concerned when any one whole category of real food is vilified or eliminated for an extended lengthen of time. They are better for our digestive systems than large quantities of animal protein and they are far more sustainable for our body and planet. In fact, cover crops like peas and barley are crucial in helping us regenerate our planet’s health, and they cost less to produce and manufacture.

Certainly consider if you are on a diet that eliminates a whole group of whole foods if it is actually ideal. When it comes to beans, you need to do a little exploration and have a little patience as introduce or reintroduce them to your system. I’ll use a personal example. I don’t do well with some of the bigger kidney and navy beans, but I do very well with all lentils, peas, beluga, mung and aduki beans. I do better with beans recipes that are from Asian or European traditions vs Mexican style recipes. Some of it is herbs, some of it is the style – whatever. Just don’t give up and explore.

Bean basics

Let’s look at western nutritional profile of beans – this is the part where we break down the food (fragmentation) to look at its components.

Beans are high in fiber – Fiber doesn’t offer energy to the body and it is sometimes cut out or eliminated from people’s diets because they are focusing on one area – I need energy, I need more muscle, etc.  However, fiber is essential to health. It regulates bowel movement and structure, it reduces cholesterol, regulates blood sugar and overall colon health. Considering the huge spike in colon cancers in our nation you want to really look at your intake of fiber. I have a whole blog devoted to the benefits of fiber and major sources of it. Check it out here

Beans are both a protein and a complex carbohydrate – Lentils and legumes wear dual hats, being both a protein and a complex carbohydrate – something the body loves and needs. This means they build and provide energy – it’s the complex carbohydrates that provide for slow steady release of energy without spiking the sugars like simple or refined sugars do. 

Beans are high in iron – If you have blood deficiency or anemia, add beans into your diet! Find out more about building blood

Beans are high in minerals – Calcium, zinc, magnesium and potassium all of these help calm, soothe and sedate overworked and tired muscles and nervous systems. Just what Americans need. 

Beans are very high in the B vitamins –  This is an important area to focus on as I see a huge increase in supplementation of B vitamins, especially in older women of the peri-menopause and menopausal years. What is feeding this increase in recommendations and prescriptions I don’t know exactly, but what I am seeing is clients who are on the B-vitamin supplements tend to become more wound up, anxious or worried. To explain why I don’t love B vitamin supplementation alone, I have to go into Chinese medicine a bit. It’s a Yin and Yang thing. B-Vitamins by themselves are very Yang (activity, movement) in nature. Women with blood deficiency are Yin deficient, they lack the grounding and anchoring to hold the Qi generated by the B vitamins which can make them ungrounded, nervous and tense. Generally, the symptoms of B vitamin deficiencies go away as soon as I get a client to add beans to their diets. What are those symptoms? They look like blood deficiency – fatigue, weakness, slow hair and nail growth, low energy, sighing, tightness in the diaphragm, anxiety and nervousness. Bean’s nature as a whole food is anchoring and calming. A few beans or lentils with a bit of oil (Yin) and salt (descends and calms) and they settle down and feel energy and strength come back.

Beans are low in fat – They are low in fat, low in calories and low in cholesterol. Actually, they are well known to reduce cholesterol in high fat diets.

Lentils and legumes – Contain properties that counter cancer causing compounds in the intestines, they help relieve depression and fortify the body overall.

The Energetics of Lentils & Legumes 

Like all foods, lentils and legumes create a post-metabolic phenomenon in the body.  This is simply the affect they they have in the body once they are ingested. Do they heat, do they cool, move the energy inward, outward, what organs to they enter?  Though each legume and lentil has its own specialties and nature they all share similar broad properties. Let’s look.

Nourish Kidneys and adrenal glands – Tired, exhausted, fatigued, or have Yang collapse? You want beans in your diet as they deeply nourish the Kidney and replenish the adrenal glands. A word of warning here, thyroid and adrenal exhaustion take time to recover from and indicate a deep deficiency – you have literally exhausted all your reserves in your savings account. As you start to rebuild, don’t over do it and continue to drain your accounts. 

They encourage growth and stimulate the brain, spine and bone marrow – All of these functions are ruled by the Kidneys in  Chinese/Asian Medicine. 

They drain damp – Making them beneficial in treating excess conditions like edema, phlegm, yeast, obesity and diabetes. Part of this action is due to their highly fibrous nature which helps pull out phlegm and excess mucus through the bowels, cleaning the bowels along the way. Loofah for your intestines.  

They calm the mind – Wound up? Beans all settle the nerves and build muscles and they anchor and build stability.

They help us adapt – Beans help to influence our personalities by making us adaptable and tolerant to stress and change in our lives. How can you go wrong? 

Pairing up your proteins!

Unfortunately, most legumes are not complete in their amino acid profile, lacking in adequate amounts of tryptophan and methionine. Not a problem – by adding the right whole grain to the right lentil or legume you can complete their profile. We will look at soy later, as it deserves its own category – let’s look at a few lentils and legumes and their matches.

Aduki beans – Highly nutritious and tender.  Adukis are small, tender red beans that are used extensively in Japanese, Asian cultures and macrobiotic cooking. They are used in stews, soups, as a sweet bean paste in mochi and red bean ice cream. Energetically, adukis are neutral, sweet and sour.  They nourish the Heart,  Small Intestines and Spleen. They tonify, astringe and drain and are fabulous for treating edema, diarrhea and aiding in weight loss. Stay away from aduki if you are very thin, frail or Yin deficient. Combine adukis with barley and you get a complete protein profile.

Mung beans – Native to India, these little green beans have become a big part of the Chinese diet. Energetically, mung beans are cool and sweet. They nourish and drain excess from the Gall Bladder, Liver, Heart and Stomach. Very detoxifying, we use mung beans to treat excess patterns like Summer Heat, high blood pressure and to clear out heavy metals. They also clear the arteries and help lower cholesterol. Avoid mung beans if you are chronically tired, fatigued have heavy watery diarrhea or are chronically cold.  Combine with barley for a complete protein.

Lentils and peas – Lentils are members of the pea family and native to India. They are high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, vitamin A.  The grow easily, don’t need to be presoaked to cook and are the easiest legume to digest. Peas and lentils are a great starting point if you are new to legumes.  They are good to eat with wheat or peas (not a typo – eat dried peas with fresh peas) to make them a complete protein. Lentils are neutral and sweet. They nourish the Heart, Kidneys, Spleen and Stomach. Safe for excess and deficiency conditions. They stimulate the adrenals and increase vitality. Combine with wheat berries for a full protein profile. Organic wheat berries will be much lower in gluten and allergen triggers than the varieties of wheat that have pesticides, herbicides and gmo’s on them.

Black beans – Black beans are used heavily in Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Native to Spain, these beans are packed with nutrition but are very low in lysine. Black beans energetically are warm and sweet. They nourish the Kidneys and Spleen are used for treating Kidney disharmonies, backaches, reproductive issues, weak ankles and knees, and hot flashes. A whole grain rice (not Uncle Ben’s) which is naturally high in lysine is the perfect match for black beans.

Garbanzo beans or chickpeas – Used in Middle Eastern and Basque cooking, chick peas take a little longer to cook.  They are very high in calcium, iron and vitamin A and potassium. Chickpeas are the stars in recipes like baba ganouj, falafel and hummus. Chickpeas are sweet and neutral. They nourish the Heart, Stomach and Spleen and pair with rice. They are a good source of unsaturated fats. Craving hummus now?

With a little creativity, lentils and legumes can become a healthy welcome habit in your diet.

Learn how to cook beans!

Be well,