5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet

February 10 marks the annual World Pulses Day, a holiday implemented by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to recognize the potential of pulses to further achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It’s a day designed to raise awareness of the fundamental role pulses play both in our nutrition and the sustainable future of agrifood systems. Before we get into concrete reasons to include more pulses in your diet, let’s get one thing straight:

What is a pulse, exactly?

Pulses are edible seeds from the legume family which grow in pods and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Overall, there are 11 kinds of pulses recognized by FAO: dry beans, dry broad beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cow peas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, lupins, and pulses nes (not elsewhere specified – minor pulses that don’t fall into one of the other categories). The important distinction between pulses and other members of the legume family is that the term “pulse” only refers to the dried seed, so fresh beans and peas are not considered pulses.

Now that we’ve cleared things up in terms of terminology, let’s talk reasons to include more pulses in your diet.

5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet

1. Pulses Are Inexpensive and Accessible

5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet
One-Pot Vegan White Bean Shakshuka by Making Thyme for Health. Click on the photo for the full recipe.

There is a reason pulses are a pantry staple in every home, regardless of the primary diet. And that reason is twofold: low price and long shelf life, which makes them an accessible non-perishable food item to keep on hand. Pulses can be stored for months (if not years) without losing their nutritional value, providing increased food availability between harvests in places where food security is an issue. Furthermore, according to FAO, protein sourced from grain legumes costs one-fifth as much as protein derived from milk. But we’ll get to protein next.

Out of all pulses, beans are believed to have the longest shelf life. Officially, dried beans have a minimum shelf life of one to two years (while canned beans will maintain quality for 2 to 5 years). Unofficially, they last basically forever, with some sources claiming their shelf life can be for up to 30 years if stored correctly! With our selection of recipes you probably won’t feel compelled to store them for decades, however, because cooking them is way more delicious and fun.

2. Pulses Are a Nutrition Powerhouse

5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet
Massaman Curry with Sweet Potato and Lentil by Lucy and Lentils. Click on the photo for the full recipe.

It is common knowledge that pulses and legumes are the best source of protein on a plant-based diet. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, their high protein content happens due to a bacterial symbiosis: “Species of Rhizobium bacteria invade the roots of legume plants and convert abundant nitrogen in the air into a form that the plant can use directly to make amino acids and thus proteins.” We’ll come back to the nitrogen-fixing properties of pulses later, because they go beyond creating protein abundance, and in the meantime let’s focus on other nutritional benefits of pulses, such as:

  • iron
  • various B vitamins
  • folic acid
  • zinc
  • magnesium
  • starch or oil
  • valuable antioxidants (in the varieties with colored seed coats)

Unlike meat and dairy products (and even their legume relatives such as soybeans or peanuts) pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fiber. According to an article on legume health benefits at WebMD, studies show that they can guard against type 2 diabetes, improve glycemic and lipid control for people who have diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, help control weight, and lower your risk of heart disease. Do you really need more reasons to include more pulses in your diet? This is a truly powerful family of plants that you need to get to know to thrive as a vegan (or soon-to-be one!).

Amongst all pulses, lentils have the highest protein content (100 grams of dry lentils contain a remarkable 25 grams of protein, and the same amount of cooked lentils has 8.9 grams of protein). In the legume family, they are second to soybeans (which aren’t considered a pulse due to their high fat content), but unlike soybeans, they have a really low carbon footprint, which makes them the more sustainable choice. Use our list to learn how to make delicious plant-based dishes with lentils, and never worry about your protein intake again:

3. Pulses Are an Ancient and Culturally Significant Crop

5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet
Vegan Matcha Anpan (Japanese Matcha Buns With Sweet Red Bean Filling) by Okonomi Kitchen. Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Pulses have been grown all around the world for at least 10,000 years. They have long been an essential alternative to protein-rich but more costly animal foods. Today, they’re available almost everywhere and are often a key ingredient in many signature national and regional dishes (especially Asian, Central and South American, and Mediterranean cuisines), which means you can explore new cuisines endlessly! Here’s a good place to start:

4. Pulses Are a Sustainable Food Choice

5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet
Spicy Mexican Kidney Beans by Rainbow Plant Life. Click on the photo for the full recipe.

By choosing to eat more lentils, peas, or dried beans, you’ll be boosting not only your own health but also that of the planet, and that’s gotta be one of the best reasons to include more pulses in your diet. Here’s how it works:

  • Climate resilience

Thanks to their broad genetic diversity, pulses can be relatively easily selected and adapted to the new changing climates. In addition to that, their nitrogen-fixing properties mean there’s less need to rely on synthetic fertilizers, thus producing a smaller carbon footprint and indirectly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Needless to say, pulses are the protein of the future.

  • Water efficiency

Compared to other (animal) protein sources, pulses are way more sustainable in terms of water usage: for example, the production of lentils requires 50 liters of water per kilogram, whereas 1 kilogram of chicken requires 4325 liters, and beef a whopping 13000 liters.

  • Increased biodiversity

While pulses themselves are extremely diverse with hundreds of varieties grown throughout the world, intercropping them with other plants creates a more diverse ecosystem for animals and insects. Moreover, it leads to more resilient and sustainable farms and increases food and income security.

  • Improved soil fertility

The aforementioned ability of pulses to self-fertilize the soil through their root nodules containing bacteria which convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia also means that they don’t need any artificial fertilizer, which degrades the soil. This helps improve soil fertility and extend the productivity and sustainability of farmlands.

If no amount of eco benefits can make you want to spend all day soaking and cooking dry beans, we get it. In that case… Pressure cooker to the rescue! If you own one, there’s no good excuse to not start cooking your own beans more often, and our guide is here to help.

5. Pulses Are a Versatile Ingredient

Vegan Bean Cassoulet
Vegan White Bean Cassoulet by Teri-Ann Carty. Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Another great thing about pulses is their versatility. They work equally well in soups, stews, chilis, pastas, curries, and salads. You can easily make your own protein-rich spreads and dips from them, and even sneak them into desserts! The possibilities are endless, but here are a few vegan pulse recipes to fuel your imagination:

Green Lentil Salad with Tangy Sumac Dressing by Seiran Sinjari

Green Lentil Salad with Tangy Sumac Dressing

Click here for the full recipe.

Vegan Persian Khoresh Gheymeh by Mani Latifi

Vegan Persian Khoresh Gheymeh

Click here for the full recipe.

One-Pot Sun-Dried Tomato & Chickpea Stew by Kate Friedman

Vegan One-Pot Sun-Dried Tomato & Chickpea Stew from Kate Friedman's 5-Ingredient Vegan Cooking

Click here for the full recipe.

Chocolate, Red Bean, and Rose Brownies by Joe Yonan

Chocolate, Red Bean, and Rose Brownies from Joe Yonan's Cool Beans

Click here for the full recipe.

Vegan Banana Bread with a Pulse Twist by Andrea Soranidis

Vegan Banana Bread with a Pulse Twist from The Vegan Bean Cookbook by Andrea Soranidis

Click here for the full recipe.

Article by Anna Kot. Featured image by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash.


5 Reasons to Include More Pulses in Your Diet

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Editor: Anna Kot.

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