Pulses, because of their nutritional qualities, are very healthy and nutritious foods (1). Pulses are a staple food in the Mediterranean diet, but they are also part of the cuisine of almost every country in the world.
In the context of a balanced diet, pulses are a key food to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Pulses help improve heart health, reduce cholesterol and help control weight given its satiating ability (2).
Pulses can help to manage blood sugar levels and diabetes because they do not cause blood sugar levels to rise as much as sugary or starchy foods that are low in fibre. Keeping blood sugar levels within the normal range reduces the risk of developing diabetes and also helps people who have diabetes to avoid having more health problems associated with levels that are not well controlled (3).
Pulses are a heart healthy food choice. Eating pulses can lower blood cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and help with body weight management, which are all risk factors for heart disease (4) (5) (6). A great benefit, particularly for plant based eaters is that they are a good source of protein as well as containing; fibre, minerals (such as calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc) and vitamins (niacin and folic acid, especially in chickpeas and vitamin B6 in lentils & beans)(7). Plus, since pulses do not contain gluten, they are suitable for coeliacs. While adding all of these benefits, pulses are also complex carbohydrates which means they are slowly absorbed by the body, slowly releasing energy and may even help to control weight (8).
Regular consumption of pulses, especially combined with vegetables, helps maintain a healthy weight. Its high fibre content increases the feeling of satiety. Fibre binds toxins and cholesterol in the intestine and helps its elimination from the body. In turn, fibre increases the volume of stool and promotes intestinal transit.
Pulses play an important role in sustainability as they generate significant benefits to the land where they are grown (9). These benefits include the ability of pulses to transform atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds that are used by growing plants, improving soil fertility. FAO estimates that pulses can help fix between 72 and 350 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year.
In addition to this, there are some species of pulses that are capable of releasing phosphorus in the soil, which also plays an important role in plant nutrition. These two properties allow reducing considerably the use of chemical fertilizers and are especially important for the sustainability and mitigation of climate change. Pulses also have higher rates of carbon accumulation in the soil than other crops, also resulting in the mitigation of climate change.
On the other hand, pulses are part of the rotation crops intended to maintain soil fertility and, therefore, to improve their quality, since their cultivation contributes to increasing organic matter, biomass and microbial activity (e.g. bacteria, fungi) in the soil. Pulses also improve the land structure and water retention capacity, in turn helping to reduce wind and water erosion. All of these factors help to improve the yield of the land and contain the threat to food security of soil degradation.
Pulses are also linked to sustainable agriculture by using water efficiently. The water used to produce 1 kg of foods rich in animal protein is hundreds of times higher than the water needed to produce 1 kg of pulses. An added benefit is that they are an affordable source of protein and minerals, which contributes to limited food waste as only a small part of the crops are wasted. Alongside this, pulses can also be stored for long periods of time without losing their nutritional properties, minimising waste.
As you can see, in the context of a balanced diet pulses are a power house for both our health and the planet.
To get the most out of pulses it is important to keep in mind that when combined with other foods, the nutritional values of pulses can fluctuate.
• Pulses & Cereals: By combining pulses with cereals we help the body to better assimilate the absorption of protein, as well as iron and other minerals present in pulses.
• Pulses + Vitamin C: Another way to increase the iron absorption capacity of pulses is to take them with foods rich in vitamin C (lemon juice in lentils, for example, carrots, peppers, etc.).
• Pulses + Tea / Coffee: It is important to know that drinking tea or coffee decreases the body's ability to absorb iron and minerals from pulses.
This blog post was written by Margarita Ribot, Nutrition & Health Coach currently completing an MSc in Food, Nutrition & Health at University College Dublin after which she will become a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) with AfN. Margarita is the author of the award winning health blog Tasty Mediterraneo. Margarita talked about the importance of pulses in the Mediterranean diet at the United Nations headquarters in New York on the occasion of the first celebration of World Pulses Day in 2019. You can find her on Instagram @Tastymediterraneo and on twitter @Tastymediterraneo.
• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Pulses: Nutritious seeds for a sustainable future. 2016. http://www.fao.org/pulses-2016/faq/en/
• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Pulses: Nutritious seeds for a sustainable future. 2016. http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/3c37a47f-228c-4bdc-b8a5-593759464eb4/
• Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Medicine. 2016;13(6)
• Ha V, Sievenpiper JL, de Souza RJ et al. Effect of dietary pulse intake on established therapeutic lipid targets for cardiovascular risk reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. CMAJ. 2014 May 13; 186(8): E252–E262
• Jayalath VH, de Souza RJ, Sievenpiper JL et al. Effect of dietary pulses on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled feeding trials. American Journal of Hypertension, Vol 27, Issue 1, Jan 2014, 56–64
• Ndanuko RN, Tapsell LC, Charlton KE et al.Dietary Patterns and Blood Pressure in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Advances in Nutrition, Vol 7, Issue 1, Jan 2016, 76–89
• Tosh S, Yada S. Dietary fibres in pulse seeds and fractions: Characterization, functional attributes, and applications. Food Research International Vol 43, Issue 2, March 2010, 450-460
• Kim SJ, de Souza RJ, Choo VL et al. Effects of dietary pulse consumption on body weight: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 103, Issue 5, May 2016, 1213–1223
• Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Soils and pulses: symbiosis for life. 2016. http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/56244a4c-d35a-48f8-b465-89f46f343312/
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