In case you're wondering, the pulse family includes chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and beans.

By Betty Gold
January 28, 2021
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Affordable, environmentally-friendly, and one of the most promising pantry staples, pulses are nutrient powerhouses that continue to have a larger-than-life role in sustainable food systems and new products popping up at supermarkets nationwide. Why? In addition to their seemingly endless health benefits and versatility, pulses are nitrogen-fixing crops, which means they can convert nitrogen in the air into a plant available nutrient. "Pulses can reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, ultimately improving the environmental sustainability of annual cropping systems," explains Becky Garrison, RDN, LD.

What are pulses, exactly?

First things first. The foods that fit into the family known as 'pulses' includes chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and beans. Technically, pulses are the edible seeds from a legume plant that are harvested dry. "Pulses are special because they have distinct health benefits apart from other legumes. For example, unlike peanuts and soy, pulses are low in fat and high in protein and fiber," says Garrison.

Pulses are recommended for a nutritionally adequate diet in the newly updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "Throughout the guidelines, pulses can be counted in either the protein group or vegetable group (one only) due to their high nutrient value," Garrison adds. Still not sold? Here are the main health benefits you'll reap from eating pulses.

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Pulses contain up to 9 grams of plant-based protein per serving, which is double the protein per serving of quinoa. “They’re also packed with fiber and other key nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, folate, and potassium,” says Garrison. “Being rich in protein and fiber and low in fat means pulses are an excellent meal component for helping with satiety.”

More than 32 million Americans have food allergies. Luckily, pulses are free of the top eight allergens, and are gluten-free, diary-free, non-GMO, vegetarian, and vegan to boot. “Basically, they are a party host’s ideal ‘one-ingredient-fits-all’ choice,” adds Garrison.

Pulses are a heart-healthy food choice. Research has shown that eating pulses can lower blood cholesterolreduce blood pressure, and help with body weight management, which are all risk factors for heart disease. (BTW, one serving of dry peas contains as much potassium as a banana.) “Remember that pulses are key components of the Mediterranean, DASH, and flexitarian diets—the #1 and #2 best meal regimes overall for 2021,” adds Garrison.

Believe it or not, pulses contain four times more fiber than brown rice. “Pulses are also a strong source of prebiotic fiber, the preferred food of gut bacteria, contributing to better gut health,” adds Garrison. 

Because they contain high-quality complex carbohydrates, pulses digest slowly (unlike simple sugars), helping to maintain blood sugar levels and provide longer-lasting energy. A Clinical Nutrition study showed that participants who had a high intake of pulses had a 35 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  

One serving of black beans contains more iron than a 3-ounce serving of steak—and they’re a whole lot cheaper. Speaking of, pulses are very versatile ingredients with a mild flavor profile, making them a great addition to saladspastadips, and (our favorite), huevos rancheros.

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