Paleo Diet Discussion: Exploring The Legume Question

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Say Goodbye To Beans

One of the most controversial aspects about following a paleo diet is the requirement to give up legumes (aka beans, pulses, peas). That means no more baked beans, no more dahl (a lot of Indian food is out), no more hummus (same goes for Middle Eastern), no more refried beans, no more tofu products (made from soya beans), no more peanuts at the bar (technically a legume not a nut), no more sauteed garlic French beans… Human food tradition the world over is replete with countless more legume-based dishes that simply don’t make the cut on the (paleo) menu. Why, you ask?  The broad thinking is that our current diet has led to all sorts of chronic diseases. One of the main reasons people adopt the paleo diet is to heal their body and improve their health by mimicking the eating lifestyle of early humans prior to the advent of agriculture. Legumes require the latter, so they don’t make the cut. Need more details? let’s go a little more in-depth. Legumes contain compounds called lectins and phytates. In the paleo school of nutrition, these are a no-no.

Lectins & Phytates

Lectins are a family of proteins present in grains and legumes (but interestingly enough, lectins are also present in dairy- not allowed by paleo- and seafood- allowed in paleo). Excessive lectin consumption has been linked to stomach lining damage, as well as potential blood toxicity. Some lectins can be seriously poisonous. The research still isn’t definite on why plants have lectins to begin with but some posit that it might be a plant’s way to avoid being eaten by animals and we know for sure that humans have trouble with lectin digestion. And what about phytates? The issue there is that phytates can bind to minerals (think iron, zinc, magnesium) and basically prevent/slow your body from absorbing them. That being said, there is also plenty of research suggesting that people who consume a balanced diet that includes legumes are absolutely fine mineral-wise. It’s worth nothing here that when legumes are pre-soaked and cooked in boiling water, the effect of lectins and phytates become a non-issue (heat essentially destroys/de-activates them).

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Living ’till 100

If you read our piece on the Blue Zones, you will remember that one of Dan Buettner’s common findings about centenarians all over the world is that they consume on average a cup of some form of beans every day. Obviously many people find this information to be intriguing. If different people from ethnic groups and cultures from all over the world with a high percentage of long-lifers happen to have come up with similar dietary habits over centuries, it’s hard to totally discount it- it would seem like an extremely unlikely coincidence. And much of the why behind the Blue Zones finding has to do with fiber.

The Whole Fiber Issue

The importance of fiber in a healthy diet is a tenet that is becoming widely accepted and legumes are packed with fiber. Many of us are seriously lacking of it and fiber has been shown to be very important for gut health, acting like a broom-sweeper as it passes through your digestive system and assisting with bowel movement regulation.We are all familiar with those posters at the doctor’s office inciting you to increase your dietary fiber. Heck, Metamucil built a whole business out of this perceived need. Fiber also slows down the sugar

Legumes are packed with fiber. What else is packed with fiber? Grains- those tiny seeds that are a staple crop of the modern agricultural industry and a dietary mainstay of people all over the world. Grains include oat, wheat, barley, corn, rye, rice, millet, spelt, teff and dozens more. All of which are totally banned on the paleo diet. Some medical professionals have expressed concern about how much fiber paleo adherents consume daily though the paleo community has countered this with the argument that their lifestyle includes a hefty amount of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, all of which contain fiber. But it really depends on how balanced someone’s paleo diet is- the worry is that it becomes all about bacon and steaks-though that applies to any diet philosophy, really. Too much of one thing and all that.

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Wallet Size

Here’s the other thing that causes controversy: not everyone can afford the paleo lifestyle. Many poorer people all across the planet over get most of their daily energy load from legumes and grains- both of which provide a hefty amount protein and carbohydrates and are every budget-friendly (read: cheap), especially as compared to animal sources. And especially when those sources need to meet (ahem) certain requirements.

Go Wild

High quality protein is a hugely important concept for paleo people. It’s all about eating seafood, meat and poultry that has been reared in its most wild form. You want the stuff that has been as untouched by human agriculture as possible. On the beef, lamb and pork front, that means pasture-raised or grass-fed. Not organic, not grass-fed finished and definitely not grain-fed. On the seafood and fish front, you are looking for the wild stuff. Absolutely no farmed fish and frankly most seafood is out since most lobsters, crabs, mussels and oysters that are available for retail consumers are farmed. With poultry products (duck, goose, chicken), you want to go for free-range, outdoor-reared chickens (no cages, no force-feeding). In most countries, choosing this quality level of meat and seafood is incredibly difficult. Not only are these not widely available, but they are extremely expensive, since the present-day meat industry over-saturates the market (and your local grocery store) with cheap, low-quality meats, the consumption of which comes with its own set of health concerns.

It’s hard to come to any definite conclusions about the importance of legumes, beans and pulses in a balanced diet. Certainly there is validity on both ends, and years of tradition too. As always, it’s worth reviewing all the arguments and coming to your own conclusions based on personal factors like lifestyle, habits, culture, budget and medical requirements. There is no perfect answer, only what’s best for your body and your life.

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