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All you need to know about legumes and pulses – what they are, how to cook them, why they are good for us, how often we should eat them and how to include them in our eating plan:

1. What are legumes and pulses?

Pulses are part of the legume family. Legumes include foods such as green beans, peas, peanuts, dry beans such as soya beans, kidney beans, black beans, split-peas, chickpeas and lentils. The term “pulses” is limited to crops harvested solely for the dry seed. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses.

2. Why are dry beans, peas and lentils good for us?

Dry beans, peas and lentils contribute to better health, healthy budgets, varied food intake and environmental sustainability:
  • They help prevent diseases such as heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes and can help with weight loss;
  • They are rich in fibre and can improve digestion, assist with reducing blood sugar spikes after meals, can improve colon health and lower blood cholesterol;
  • They are good sources of vitamins (especially thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and minerals (calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc);
  • They are a source of non-haem iron (iron coming from plants) which is used well by the body especially when eaten with foods rich in vitamin C (e.g. guava, oranges, naartjies, etc) to improve uptake by the body;
  • They are a good source of plant protein which is low in fat and naturally free of cholesterol;
  • We can eat them instead of meat or other animal foods and still be healthy, as they are an economical source of protein;
  • We can use them to make meat ‘go further’;
  • They help the environment as they are water-efficient and help to keep the soil fertile and healthy;
  • They don’t require refrigeration to be stored before being cooked.

3. How often should we eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soya?

One of the South African Guidelines for Healthy Eating state that dry beans, split-peas, lentils or soya should be eaten regularly. That means that these foods should be eaten at least four times a week. Try to add them to dishes for instance, samp and beans; lentils and mince; or chickpeas with chicken, use in salads, soups and dips, or make sandwich fillings and snacks. Also try to eat them on the days that you don’t eat meat.

If you do not eat meat, fish, chicken, eggs or milk, you should eat dry beans, split-peas, lentils or soya every day as part of a healthy eating plan that includes starchy foods and plenty of vegetables and fruit.

4. How can we include dry beans, split-peas, lentils and soya in our eating plans?

  • Pulses and soya can be gradually phased into a person’s eating plan in order to become more familiar with these foods;
  • Use soya mince and dry beans to make mince-meat and mince stews go further. They are also more economical than meat;
  • When dry beans, split peas or lentils are combined with a starchy food (whole grains) nuts or seeds, the proteins from the two foods complement each other and make a better quality protein;
  • Include beans, peas and lentils in soups, stews, mince, pasta dishes or rice dishes;
  • Keep a variety of canned legumes, e.g. lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, etc. for a quick meal (for instance salad with chickpeas or bakes beans on whole-wheat toast) or side dish (for instance bean salad at a braai);
  • Consider adding one meatless (vegetarian) meal per week, for instance Meatless Mondays, and use dry beans, split peas or lentils in place of meat;
  • Change your favourite recipe by replacing half the meat with legumes;
  • Try a new recipe for dry beans, peas, lentils or soya each week.
  • Enjoy bean soups or a bean salad for lunch or for dinner.
  • Try a bean or lentil dish when eating out instead of a meat dish;
  • Try a vegetarian burger with a salad when eating out.
  • Experiment with recipes such as lentil soup, chili, bean salad, etc.
  • Cook a large batch of beans and freeze into smaller portions;
  • Try hummus, or other bean dips, with fresh cut vegetables for a healthy snack;
  • Try beans in a salad. For instance, mix different kinds of dry beans to make a bean salad


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