What are legumes and should you eat them?

I arrived at the office this morning to see the internet was having one of its regular health kerfuffles - this time about the paleo diet. Scientists at the University of Melbourne have released a study that argues the paleo diet is bad for your health, will make you gain weight and increases your diabetes risk. It's no surprise many paleo fans aren't happy and beg to differ.

Now, we're not the sort of people who love to wade into social media battles. We've got too much food to cook to have time for that. So we want to tread lightly here. But we also have an interest in keeping our diners healthy, and the paleo diet is something a lot of them are very curious about. We're here to help them eat according to the preferences as much as possible, but we also want to make sure those choices are informed.

So! Let's talk legumes. Legumes are one of the food groups that paleo dieters have declared as enemies, and as today's controversy sprung up, I noticed a question cropping up several times now.
the paleo diet advises against eating legumes

What the heck is a legume?

That's an important question! Legumes are one of the bedrock food groups of cuisines around the world. It's a type of dry fruit or seed that grows inside a pod. The seed inside that pod is called a pulse, which might sound a bit more familiar to you.
Legumes you'll probably have heard of include lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas, soybeans and peanuts.

What's the big problem with them?

According to paleo dieters, anything that has been bred and developed through farming and agriculture is badly adapted for the human digestive system. They argue that the only safe food is anything we might have eaten as hunter gatherers (aka cavemen) - mostly fruit, vegetables and red meat.

Legumes are a major farm crop, so paleo dieters would say they're mostly inappropriate for people to eat. Then there are worries about phytic acid and lectins.

So what about phytic acid?

Legumes contain phytic acid, which prevents your absorption of important minerals. Phytic acid does do this, but only in very small quantities, and also has some health benefits of its own. We'd argue it's much more important to simply eat more of those minerals than to cut out an entire food group that contains some really good ones.

But wait! What about lectins?

Then there are lectins - lectins are actually not great for you. They're toxic, in fact, and can cause a lot of stomach problems. Except the thing with lectins is that they're deactivated by heat. Uncooked or undercooked food that contains a lot of lectin will make you very ill so, you know, don't undercook your legumes.

Matt LaLonde, who has a PhD in organic chemistry from Harvard, explains this in a lot more detail here (disclaimer, this podcast is selling some kind of health course but hey, who doesn't have something to sell? ;) and well, PhDs from Harvard aren't exactly easy to come by. We'd call the source reliable).

So are legumes actually bad for you?

Not so you'd notice - at least that's what we think. Even outside of the study, we have our doubts about a diet like paleo because it's so high in animal protein. We think as much protein should be gained from vegetable sources as possible.

Legumes are an excellent source of protein, as well as fibre, which is great for digestion and will help you feel full for longer. They also often have a high iron content, essential for healthy blood and maintaining energy levels.

Every food is going to have downsides when you eat too much of it, and everyone is different. We don't claim to offer blanket advice that will be right for everyone, and you will know your body and what does and doesn't agree with you.

But all in all - legumes most definitely get our stamp of approval. Just cook them properly!

What do you think? Know any great legume-centred recipes? A killer daal or homemade baked beans? Send us a tweet @JustHospitality or join the chat on Facebook.