Pulses are trending big time. That includes all types of beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas. New products—from lentil chips to roasted chickpeas—are appearing on grocery story shelves, and desserts made with pulse flours and pureed pulses are all over Pinterest (black bean brownies, anyone?). There's a lot to love about pulses: They're gluten-free and eco-friendly, and loaded with nutrients and antioxidants. And now, there's another reason to add more pulses to your diet: Recent research suggests they might help you stave off type 2 diabetes.
A new study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition tracked more than 3,300 adults who were at high risk of heart disease for four years. Researchers found that compared to those with a low intake of pulses (12.73 grams/day, or about 1.5 servings/week), those with a higher consumption (28.75 grams/day, equivalent to 3.35 servings/week) had a 35% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study also showed that participants who substituted half a serving of pulses a day for a similar serving of eggs, bread, rice, or baked potato had a lower incidence of diabetes.
The health protection that pulses offer may be related to several factors. In addition to being rich in B vitamins and minerals (including calcium, potassium and magnesium), pulses have a unique macronutrient makeup: The protein, fiber, and carbohydrates that pulses pack help to slow digestion. This extends the feeling of fullness, delays hunger, and results in a low glycemic response—meaning pulses help your body regulate blood glucose and insulin levels.
Full disclosure: I’m obsessed with pulses. A few years ago I wrote a book called Slim Down Now, with pulses as the cornerstone. It contains an eating plan that incorporates a ½ cup serving of pulses per day, either as the protein in a plant-based meal, or as the fiber-rich starch in a meal that includes animal protein (like adding white beans to tuna salad). I had a lot of fun developing the recipes for the book, which include pulse-based pudding, smoothies, frozen pops, chocolate truffles, and brownies, in addition to savory dishes, like lentil stuffed peppers, and cannellini bean “lasagna.”
I found that pulses are incredibly easy to incorporate into a wide variety of dishes, and the women who tested my plan lost weight—without feeling hungry, deprived, or lacking energy. I also devoted an entire chapter to research on the health benefits of pulses, which, in addition to blood glucose regulation include weight and belly fat loss, cholesterol reduction, cancer protection, improved athletic performance, and higher overall nutrient intake.
Now, if you’re worried about the potential “side effects” of eating more pulses—namely bloating and gas—know that your body will adapt. A study from Arizona State University looked into the bean bloat phenomenon by observing 40 volunteers for eight weeks.
One group in the study added ½ cup of canned carrots to their diet each day, while the second ate an extra ½ cup of beans. In the first week, about 35% of the subjects who added beans reported an increase in flatulence (note: 65% did not!). By week two, only 19% reported excess gas. And the number continued to decline each week—to 11% by week four, and down to 3% by week eight.
If you want to boost your own pulse intake, you've got plenty of options: Whip beans or chickpea flour into smoothies, or choose pulse-based soups. Add black beans or chickpeas to omelets and salads. Snack on roasted chickpeas, hummus or other pulse dips. Use pulse noodles in place of grain versions, and swap all purpose flour for chickpea or fava bean flour in baked goods, or to thicken sauces.
You can also think outside the box with hummus: Use it as a salad dressing, or in place of cream to make vodka sauce. I also use mashed, seasoned white beans as substitutes for eggs or cheese in many vegan recipes. The possibilities are endless. And the result is always a delicious, filling, and satisfying way to protect your health.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.