Co-written with Jenna West, dietetic intern

You may have heard that the UN Generally assembly has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. The point of this campaign is to shine alight on the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating more pulses.

If you are not sure what exactly a pulse is, let alone why you should eat more of them, we’ve got you covered! Here is our quick and easy guide to understanding pulses and (perhaps more importantly) how to eat more of them with fewer digestive symptoms.

(BONUS: stick around for easy, delish recipes you can try tonight!)
Believe or not the word “pulse” has a meaning other than the beating of your heart. In nutrition, the word “pulse” is derived from the latin word “puls” which means thick soup or potage, and refers to the dry seed of the legume family. You probably know them better as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas.
There are four types of pulses:
-dried beans (pinto, kidney, navy)
-dried peas (yellow, green)
-chickpeas (garbanzo)
-lentils (red, green)
Pulses differ from soybeans and peanuts because they contain virtually no fat. They have enormous health benefits thanks to their fiber and protein content, and the good news is… they are cheap! You may already know that legumes in general are an important part of a well-balanced diet, but knowing how to incorporate them in your diet can be difficult.
Before getting into the how, let’s first review the health benefits

  • They contain a high amount of nutrients for a low amount of calories
Pulses are naturally high in vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, phosphorus, folate and other b-vitamins. They are also high in protein and low in calories and fat. Combined with grains, nuts, seeds, or dairy, they make an excellent source of complete protein for vegetarians and vegans.
  • They are high in fiber
One of the benefits of eating pulses is that they contain a high amount of soluble and insoluble fiber. The former helps decrease cholesterol while the latter helps maintain a healthy gut. Insoluble fiber moves through your body undigested, and finally gets fermented in the gut by good bacteria. A healthy gut is important for the prevention and management of many chronic diseases as well as colon cancer. Fiber also helps keep you full for longer, which can help with weight management. There is also some evidence that feeding our gut bacteria with fiber helps with weight regulation. The science is still young, but so far it has looked promising. A recent episode of The Nature of Things explores the connection between the body’s microbiome and weight. Check out the episode here.
  • They help regulate blood sugar levels
The starches found in pulses are harder to break down in our bodies, and therefore digest at a much slower rate. Pulses are therefore considered low glycemic index because they prevent our blood sugar from rising quickly. This can be beneficial for the prevention and management of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
  • They are incredibly versatile

One of the great things about pulses is that they come in various forms: whole, split or ground into flours. These flours can be an alternative to all-purpose flour, and can be used to make baked goods such as breads, muffins and cakes.

  • They are environmentally friendly
Pulses are not only beneficial for our health, but they also benefit the planet! Legume plants contain bacteria that produce nitrogen compounds that help the plant to grow and compete with other plants. When the plant dies, the nitrogen compounds help fertilize the soil and create an environment where new plants can grow.
Here are some tips on how to prepare dried pulses
  • Wash dried pulses thoroughly and soak overnight. Changing the water often helps improve their digestibility
  • Dried lentils or split peas do not need to be soaked overnight because they are smaller
  • Boil dried pulses in fresh water
  • Remove the foam that comes to the surface while boiling
  • Cook until the pulse becomes tender (it may take 1-2 hours). Cooking time will depend on the type of pulse so it’s a good idea to check the package
Of course, to save time you can buy canned pulses which have been pre-cooked so you can skip any soaking and boiling.

How to incorporate pulses into your diet:

One of the reasons why people do not eat pulses more often is due to the undesirable temporary side effects they can cause to our gut. Here are some tips to lessen the digestive side effects:
  • Smaller pulses are easier to digest and tend to cause fewer side effects. If pulses are a new addition to your diet, start with lentils or split peas.
  • Rinsing canned pulses well and eating only a ⅓ of a cup at a time can also cut down on any embarrassing side effects. But don’t worry! The more you eat beans, the fewer side effects you will feel. Our gut bacteria become used to the high amounts of fiber and your body adjusts.
  • If you are prone to feeling bloated or gassy, avoid eating anything sweet like fruit or other desserts at a meal where you are eating pulses. This tend to make gas production worse.
  • Of course, if you really feel uncomfortable eating pulses, consider using Beano to help relieve your digestive symptoms.
To encourage the whole family to enjoy them:
  • Try mixing them with the meat in your favourite recipes. Rather than change a recipe completely, try using half the amount of meat and replace the other half with pulses. This works particularly well in a Shepherd’s pie, Sloppy Joes, chili, meatloaf or hamburgers.
  • Mix them into your grain product. Rice and beans is a traditional favourite in many cultures around the world. Quinoa and bean salads are also very popular these days
  • Try interesting flavors from around the world to awake your senses. Indian flavors like coconut, cumin and coriander go very well with the flavors of pulses. So does the spicy flavors of Spanish foods and those from Mexico.
Cooking tips
  • Don’t salt the water when soaking beans. Doing so will result in harder, and possibly inedible, beans. Instead, add salt after reconstituting the dry beans and midway through the cooking process.
  • Use canned pulses to save time.
Recipe ideas
If you are looking for some inspiration, try these quick and easy recipes to get started:
Check out my FREE Resources page for more easy recipes made with pulses in my mini recipe e-books!