The Wonderful Legume

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Welcome back to Stirring The Pot. Thank you for joining me.

The wonderful legume. Chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, haricot beans, peas - the list goes on. High in fibre, very low in fat, inexpensive, an excellent source of protein, iron and calcium, a slow-releasing carbohydrate, and a delicious base to any meal - what's not to love? So why aren't we eating them every day? I'll hazard a guess that there are two reasons. The first is that despite legumes being an integral part of the diets of all of the longest-lived and healthiest populations on the planet, for most of us in the UK and North America, they remain an unfamiliar foodstuff. Except for the beloved kidney bean in chilli, we seem to have very little idea of what to do with them. I can remember the number of times, before I went plant-based, that I'd buy a bag of red lentils with every intention of cooking something with them, only to find them three years later at the back of the cupboard, unloved and unused. I would throw them out and start the whole process again. Other than the kidney beans in chilli, legumes weren't part of my diet growing up so I had no family recipes to fall back on, so those lentils sat in my cupboard year after year. The second reason is flatulence and bloating. If you have started any of the 21-day kickstart programmes which I mentioned in my first blog post then you will know what I mean. The high levels of fibre in legumes provide an abundance of food for the good bacteria which live in your large bowel. These bacteria then convert the fibre to fermented gases, hence the farting and bloating.

So, dear reader, where does this leave us? Let's start with the first hurdle. Find a reasonably simple recipe which includes legumes such as this delicious Golden French Lentil Stew from Oh She Glows. Or Dreena Burton's amazing brownies. Once you have done the grocery shopping, leave the legumes at the back of the counter out of the way but completely visible. Don't put them away in the cupboard or I promise you, you won't see them again for years until you do a clear out and marvel at the 'best before' dates you've missed. Let them sit on the counter and tease you until you make the recipe. As with all things in life, the first time is the hardest. It gets easier after that and gradually becomes the new normal. Find recipes that aren't complicated and use tinned legumes when possible. If you need to soak your dried beans the night before and then boil them for two hours the next day, it won't ever happen. Keep it simple. Using dried beans adds a layer of complexity you don't need at the beginning or possibly ever. The one exception is lentils which don't need soaking. There is no magic bullet to this one, except to let the beans taunt you until you succumb.

The second problem of flatulence is in many ways easier to deal with because it has a biological basis rather than a behavioural one. It also resolves with time. The aim is to try to minimise the wind and bloating until it sorts itself out naturally over a couple of weeks. Once the good bacteria become accustomed to having this new and wonderful supply of plants, they start to recalibrate and the gas production eases. While all high fibre plants can contribute to increased wind, legumes seem to have the greatest effect. Start with smaller amounts of legumes only once a day and gradually work up. Lentils, tofu (usually made from soybeans), split peas and tinned legumes seem to be better tolerated. If you do want to start with dried beans, have a look at this how-to article. Adding cloves, cinnamon, garlic and ginger to a meal sometimes helps. Asafoetida is a plant in the fennel family and can be found as a powder in some specialty shops. It adds a savoury depth to a dish and is known to improve symptoms of wind. However, I don't want to overstate problems with flatulence. Most people starting a healthy plant-based diet don't need to fasten their seatbelts every time they sit in a chair. Discomfort from increased gas production, if present at all, is usually mild and self-limiting. So try these strategies and you should find that your first couple of plant-based weeks go smoothly.

In next weeks' blog post I'll be talking about the value of a healthy plant-based diet for those of you who want to lose weight. If you have already dived into eating plant-based, you will likely have noticed that some pounds have slipped off. Often this comes as a surprise as there is no calorie restriction with this way of eating. Next week I'll shed some light on this.

Please be aware that a plant-based diet is a very effective way to lose weight, so if you are taking medication please consult your healthcare professional as medication doses might need altering as you become lighter and healthier. Also, anyone on a purely plant-based diet requires vitamin B12 supplementation of at least 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week (British Dietetic Association).