Are Chickpeas Healthy? Why This Nutritionist Calls Them 'Nutrient Powerhouses'
I've been chickpea-obsessed for years. As a nutritionist, I've long touted the nutritional and health benefits of this mighty plant. And as a plant-based cook, I'm impressed by the countless ways to incorporate chickpeas into both savory and sweet dishes, from traditional hummus to chickpea ice cream. Here's more about why chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, deserve to be a staple in your diet (and tasty ways to enjoy them).
What are chickpeas?
Chickpeas are a member of the pulse family, a unique subcategory of legumes. Pulses, which also include beans, lentils, and dry peas, are the dried edible seeds of legume plants that are low in fat and high in protein and fiber. Higher-fat legumes, like peanuts and soybeans, are not pulses, neither are fresh peas and beans.
Chickpeas, which originated in the Middle East, are the one of the most widely consumed pulses in the world. There are several dozen distinct varieties, including the European pale yellow type popular in the US, as well as black, dark brown, and reddish chickpeas. You can find chickpeas in the same aisle as canned and dried bagged beans in the grocery store.
Chickpea plants can grow to about 2-feet tall, with small, feathery leaves and white or reddish blue flowers. One pod contains one to three peas, about a half-inch in diameter. Garbanzo is the name used for chickpeas in Spanish-speaking countries.
Chickpeas are nutrient powerhouses. According to the US Department of Agriculture database, 1 cup of cooked chickpeas provides 269 calories, 14.5 grams of protein, 4.25 grams of fat, and 44.9 grams of carbohydrate, with a whopping 12.5 grams from dietary fiber. That's over 44% of the daily recommended fiber intake.
Chickpeas are also packed with key vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. According to a study published in the journal Nutrients, people who regularly consume chickpeas and/or hummus have higher intakes of not only fiber, but also vitamins A, E, and C; folate; magnesium; potassium; and iron.
A 1-cup cooked portion of chickpeas supplies over 80% of the daily value for manganese, a mineral the body needs to make energy; protect cells; and support strong bones, blood clotting, and immunity. The same-sized amount also packs a significant portion of the daily need for several nutrients: over 70% of the daily need for folate, which assists in making DNA; 26% for iron, which helps carry oxygen throughout the body; 20% for magnesium, which helps regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and muscle and nerve function; 14% for potassium, required for blood pressure control, as well as kidney, heart, muscle, and nerve function; and 17% for immune-supporting zinc. Pulses, including chickpeas, are also chock-full of antioxidants, which are linked to protection against heart disease, cancer, and neurological diseases, according to a 2020 report.
Chickpea health benefits
Chickpeas are naturally gluten-free and are not a common trigger of allergies or intolerances. They're also incredibly health protective. Consumption of chickpeas and other pulses lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity and increases good gut bacteria to support digestive health and anti-inflammation, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. And compared to non-chickpea/hummus eaters, regular chickpea/hummus consumers are more likely to have lower BMIs and waist measurements, per government data.
Authors of an Australian study asked 42 volunteers to consume their usual diets, plus about 3.5 ounces of chickpeas daily for 12 weeks, and then return to their typical diets for a month. The participants' food diaries revealed that they ate less from every food group, particularly grains, during the chickpea intervention.
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Chickpea benefits beyond nutrition
Pulses, including chickpeas, are extremely environmentally friendly. In addition to being drought-friendly (pulses use just a tenth of the water of other proteins) and frost-hardy, pulses enrich the soil where they grow, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. They're also readily available and affordable. A 1-pound bag of dried chickpeas, which contains 13 servings, generally costs less than $1.50, and a 15.5-ounce can with 3.5 servings runs about $0.85.
Chickpea side effects
When you first ramp up your chickpea intake you may experience more gas, but research shows that your body will adapt. One study actually measured this using beans. Over an eight-week period, 40 volunteers added either a half cup of canned carrots daily (the control, as this veg rarely triggers GI effects) or a half cup of beans. Within the first week, about 35% of the bean eaters reported an increase in flatulence (note: 65% did not). By week two, only 19% reported excess gas. And the number continued to drop weekly—down to 3% by week eight, the same response as the carrot eaters.
Because chickpeas are in the same family as beans, you can expect a similar digestive adjustment. If you purchase dry chickpeas, soaking them overnight and then discarding the soaking water leaches out natural compounds in pulses that trigger gas production. For canned chickpeas, rinsing them thoroughly after draining can also help curb bloating.
Ways to enjoy chickpeas
Chickpeas are one of the most versatile foods on the planet. At breakfast I blend them into smoothies and slightly mash them to make veggie, herb, and chickpea scrambles. I love oven-roasted chickpeas as a snack or a garden salad addition. And chickpeas provide a plant protein source in everything from soups and bowls to stir fries, curries, casseroles, tacos, chilled protein salads (in place of chicken or tuna), falafel, veggie burgers, and of course hummus.
Chickpeas also make a stellar addition to desserts. They can be transformed into cookie dough, blondies, brownies, dark chocolate truffles and bark, fudge, pudding, dessert hummus, and more.
Aquafaba, the liquid in canned chickpeas or the water used to cook dried chickpeas, has become quite a sensation. It can be used as a vegan alternative to dairy and eggs to make meringue, mayonnaise, and even vegan ice cream or chocolate mousse. There are also a wide variety of chickpea products on the market these days, including chickpea protein powder, flour, butter/spreads, pasta, puffed snacks, granola, and cereal. Some that I really like are:
There are numerous advantages to eating more chickpeas, and the downside of gas/bloating can be improved by consuming them more frequently. I advise my clients to incorporate a half cup of pulses daily, including chickpeas, either as the protein in a meal or as a fiber-rich carbohydrate source. You can certainly eat more than this amount, but it may be best to work up to larger quantities to give your digestive system time to adjust. Also be sure to drink plenty of water to help your body handle the fiber chickpeas provide. To up your intake, BPA-free canned chickpeas in particular offer a simple, cost-effective, shelf-stable, ready-to-eat option. Stock them as a staple in order to take advantage of their many uses and benefits.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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