The Other Side of the Great Legume Debate
Legumes are one of the most controversial topics in nutrition today, but what exactly are they? Simply put, the legume family consists of plants that produce a pod with seeds, and the legume (aka “bean”) is the actual seed. Some of the more common edible legumes include peas, chickpeas, beans (black, lima, kidney etc), lentils, soybeans and peanuts. These tiny foods are often touted as nutritional powerhouses packed with vitamins, protein, and fiber; however, they may be a lot more harmful to your health than you’ve been led to believe. We aren’t here to take a hard side one way or another, but here are a few reasons why you may want to reconsider the role that legumes play in your diet:
- Legumes contain phytates or phytic acid. Phytates bind to the minerals in your food, preventing you from absorbing them. They also decrease the function of certain digestive enzymes such as pepsin and amylase. While they aren’t a major concern in small amounts, if you’re planning on making them a primary source of calories or using them as replacements for animal fat and protein (as many cultures do), you’re actually putting yourself at risk for severe nutritional deficiencies. For instance, nuts contain phytic acid as well, but unlike legumes, they are generally consumed in moderation as small snacks, not as the base of most meals.
- Legumes contain lectins. Lectins are special proteins that are essential to the growth of plant seeds, and are found in almost all types of food. However, potentially dangerous lectins are highest in legumes, grains, pseudo-grains and dairy. They can damage the intestinal wall, contribute to leaky gut, and trigger inflammation. When legumes are consumed on a regular basis the body recognizes them as threats, which often results in the onset or worsening of autoimmune conditions. While many lectins can be destroyed by heat or pressure cooking, most people find these methods annoyingly time-consuming. Plus, it’s almost guaranteed any beans you eat in a restaurant won’t be prepared this way.
- Legumes contain FODMAPS. FODMAPS (or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) are short-chain carbohydrates that are resistant to digestion. They produce gas and draw liquid into the intestines which cause digestive distress to many people, especially those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
- Legumes can stall weight loss, or even cause weight gain. Sure, vegetarians and vegans may promote them as excellent sources of protein, but in reality, about 75-80% of calories in legumes are derived from carbohydrates. And while safe starches aren’t necessarily “bad” for you, if you are looking to lose weight or lower your blood sugar, eliminating beans from your diet can help immensely. Plus, they can’t match the micronutrient content of vegetables, fruit or animal protein, so with all of their potential downsides, there isn’t a compelling reason to eat them.
- Peanuts are one of the most dangerous legumes. First of all, they contain Peanut Agglutinin, a very toxic and problematic lectin. Agglutinin is very heat resistant, so it causes digestive and inflammatory issues regardless of the cooking or preparation method. Secondly, peanuts contain a mold called aflatoxins, which is nearly impossible to eliminate (so difficult in fact that the FDA has labeled it an “unavoidable contaminant”). Aflatoxins have been linked to a number of health concerns including allergies, digestive issues and cancer.
- Soybeans are particularly dangerous as well. In addition to containing lectins, phytic acid and FODMAPS, it also contains Phytoestrogens imitate the action of estrogen in the body, but with a much weaker “signal”. Therefore, they basically “trick” your body into overproducing estrogen which creates a complete hormonal imbalance. This can lead to impaired fertility and reproductive issues in women, and the development of “feminine” traits in men. Even worse, phytoestrogens have been linked to increased incidence of bladder and breast cancer, impaired thyroid function, asthma and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. Additionally, like peanuts, soy is one of the most highly pesticide-laden and genetically modified crops in the United States.
- Lastly, many legumes contain tyramine. Tyramine is a compound produced by the breakdown of an amino acid called tyrosine. These compounds can dangerously elevate blood pressure in some individuals (possibly even increasing risk of stroke or heart attack), trigger migraine headaches, or alter the way medications (particularly MAOI’s) work in your body. Therefore, if you are prone to migraines or are taking anti-depressants or medications for Parkinson’s, we would highly advise following a tyramine-free diet.
That said, we recognize that no one “diet” fits all, and that what works for one person does not necessarily apply for another. The intention of this blog is simply to present the “flip side” to the debate as to whether or not legumes are a healthful addition to your diet, and allow you to listen to your body and decide for yourself. One of the best ways to do this is to consult a certified health coach or nutritionist about an elimination diet.