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Legumes: Using beans, peas and lentils instead of meat
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When was the last time you ate chickpeas, navy beans or black-eyed peas? Has it been days, weeks or even months?

Legumes are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. They're good sources of protein and can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more fat and cholesterol. Rediscover legumes and all the nutrition and versatility they have to offer.

Why eat legumes?

Legumes — a class of vegetables that includes beans, peas and lentils — are typically low in fat, contain no cholesterol, and are high in protein, folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also have phytochemicals, a group of compounds that may help prevent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. In addition, they're a good source of fiber — the part of plant-based foods that your body doesn't digest. A diet high in fiber can reduce your risk of developing diabetes and help lower blood cholesterol levels, which can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Soybeans, one type of legume, are unique among beans because they contain all of the amino acids needed to make a complete protein, just like meat. They also contain isoflavones, a plant-based compound that may reduce the risk of some types of cancer.

Many healthy foods come from soybeans, including:

  • Tofu is a curd made from soybeans in a process similar to that used for making cheese. Because it has a bland, spongy texture, tofu absorbs the flavor of other foods when you marinate or cook it, making it very versatile. Tofu is available in several different textures, including extra firm, firm, soft and silken.
  • Soy milk is a soy beverage made by grinding soybeans and mixing them with water to form a milk-like liquid. You can use soy milk as a replacement for cow's milk. Some soy milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals.
  • Tempeh is a food made from fermented soybeans. You can buy tempeh frozen or refrigerated in a cake-like form. It has a meaty texture and nutty flavor, so you can use it in your recipes as a substitute for meat.
  • Soy flour is a flour made from ground-roasted soybeans. Use soy flour in baked goods for added protein, fiber and phytochemicals.

Peanuts, commonly thought of as nuts, are actually a member of the legume family along with beans and peas. Peanuts are good sources of protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, niacin and folate. They're high in fat, but most of the fat is monounsaturated fat — the healthier type of fat. Peanuts can be eaten in moderation as a snack, or added to foods such as stir-fries.

Tips for selecting, storing and serving legumes

Here are suggestions to help you select, store and serve these healthy foods.


  • Choose legumes with a deep, almost glossy color. Dry-looking or faded legumes indicate a longer storage time. The longer legumes are stored, the more likely the legumes won't taste fresh. In addition, legumes with cloudy surfaces may indicate the growth of mold.
  • Select a wide variety of legumes. Many supermarkets and food stores stock a wide variety of legumes — both dried and canned — for greater versatility in cooking. Here are several of the more common types:
Type Common uses
Black bean Soups, stews, rice and beans, Mexican dishes, and Central and South American cuisine
Black-eyed pea Salads, casseroles, fritters, bean cakes, curry dishes, and Southern dishes with ham and rice
Chickpea (garbanzo) Casseroles, hummus, minestrone soup and Spanish stews
Fava or broad bean Stews and side dishes
Lima bean Succotash, casseroles, soups and salads
Navy bean Boston baked beans, soups and stews
Pinto bean Stews, refried beans, and Mexican rice and beans
Red kidney bean Stew, mixed bean salad, chili and Cajun bean dishes

Adapted from the American Dietetic Association, 2002


  • Place dried legumes away from heat, light and moisture. They keep well in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag.
  • Keep unopened canned beans and peas in a cool, dry place. They safely store for two to five years. Legumes canned at home keep up to a year.


  • Sort and rinse legumes carefully before use. Bags of legumes may include a few small stones, fibers, or misshapen or discolored items. Remove these before cooking.
  • Soak large, dried legumes before cooking. Beans and other large, dried legumes such as chickpeas and black-eyed peas require soaking in room temperature water, a step that rehydrates them for more even cooking. Soaking also reduces the flatulence-inducing quality of legumes and makes them easier to digest.

    Soak legumes overnight. Once soaked, the beans are ready to cook. Another way to rehydrate beans is to place them in water and bring to a boil for two minutes. Then cover and let the beans soak for an hour. Discard the soaking water to help reduce the gas-forming potential of the beans.

  • Use canned legumes for convenience. Already prepared legumes are OK as is in dishes that don't require long simmering. Do rinse them well to remove any sodium added during processing.

Add more legumes to your diet

Consider these ways to incorporate legumes into your meals and snacks:

  • Prepare soups, stews and casseroles that feature legumes.
  • Stir-fry extra-firm or firm tofu rather than meat in oriental dishes. Freezing and then thawing tofu before use gives it a firmer, chewier texture.
  • Use pureed beans as the basis for dips and spreads.
  • Replace eggs in baking recipes with 1 tablespoon of soy flour and 2 tablespoons of water for each egg.
  • Add chickpeas or black beans to salads.
  • Snack on a handful of soy nuts rather than on chips or crackers.
  • Use tofu in place of half the ground beef for meatloaf or tacos.
  • Add garbanzos or other canned beans to your salad. If you typically buy a salad at work and no beans are available, bring beans from home in a small container.

If you can't find a particular type of legume in the store, you can easily substitute one type of legume for another. For example, pinto and black beans are good substitutes for red kidney beans. And cannellini, lima beans and navy beans are easily interchangeable. Experiment with what types of legumes you like best in your recipes to make your meals and snacks both nutritious and interesting.

  • Healthy diet basics: Using a food pyramid
  • Whole grains: High in nutrition and fiber, yet low in fat
  • Poultry, meat and seafood: How to's of high-protein foods
  • Dairy products: Selecting, storing and serving
  • Vegetables: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods
  • Fruits: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods
  • June 17, 2005

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