Have you heard the news that eating beans and other legumes might actually make women happier? The reason isn’t clear, but I suspect that it has less to do with enjoyment of sophomoric jokes about “musical fruits” and more to do with these foods’ myriad health benefits.

In fact, I’m hoping to inspire you to develop a passion for the foods known as pulses, which are the edible seeds of leguminous plants such as beans, peas and lentils. (Technically, the pulse is the seed and the legume is the pod, but for common usage the terms are interchangeable.) No matter what you call them, pulses are nutritional powerhouses packed with protein, potassium, iron, zinc, niacin, folate and fiber. According to recent research, pulses may help…

  • Boost emotional well-being. The fascinating study I alluded to earlier, published in Journal of Food Research, suggested that regular consumption of legumes was linked with lower levels of stress, emotional distress, anxiety and depression in women ages 60 to 80.
  • Increase longevity. In an international study of seniors, the risk for death over a seven-year period dropped by 7% to 8% for each 0.7 ounces (about one-quarter cup cooked) of beans consumed daily.
  • Fight cardiovascular disease. Pulses’ soluble fiber and healthful unsaturated fats help control production of artery-clogging cholesterol…and their potassium helps reduce blood pressure by counteracting the effects of sodium.
  • Guard against diabetes. The complex carbohydrates that pulses provide are digested slowly, thus helping to maintain steady blood sugar levels.
  • Keep us slim. I heard this enticing tidbit from Donna Winham, DrPH, a public health nutritionist who has been studying the effects of pulses for years. “Pulses are very filling—so when you eat them first or as part of your meal, you’re less likely to eat a lot of other food afterward because you feel full,” she told me.

Despite these impressive benefits, pulses are not super-popular in the US. Is fear of flatulence holding you back? Stop worrying. Dr. Winham explained, “In our research, we found that the majority of people didn’t have any symptoms of flatulence after the first week of consuming one-half cup of beans on a daily basis.” If certain beans or other pulses do make you gassy and symptoms persist even after an adjustment period of several weeks, try experimenting with various types to see which suit you best.

Now that your heart is beating faster in eager anticipation of adding more pulses to your meals, here are some ideas to get you started…

  • Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are gaining ground. Current US consumption is a whopping 58% higher than it was about a decade ago, due in part to the growing popularity of hummus, of which chickpeas are the key ingredient. If you are on a gluten-free diet, note that chickpea flour is a good alternative to wheat. Easy side dish: Chickpeas drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with paprika.
  • Black beans are firm, round pulses commonly known as frijoles negros in Latin American cuisine. As a treat, visit a Brazilian restaurant or try your hand at making the national dish called feijoada. When I lived in Sao Paulo, I simply could not get enough of this hearty stew, which combines black beans with various cuts of pork and beef. Plenty of recipes can be found online (for instance, Emeril Lagasse’s feijoada is on FoodNetwork.com at http://bit.ly/gFwar5).
  • Adzuki beans—a small, deep-red variety that is becoming easier to find—are particularly high in fiber with about 12 grams in one-half cup. As beans go, they are naturally sweet and faintly nutty…in fact, in Japan, they’re often used in desserts, including ice cream. Simple serving suggestions:Add adzuki beans to tossed salads…or combine them with brown rice.
  • Lentils are easy to cook from scratch because they don’t require soaking, so most types are ready in under an hour. You’re probably picturing the standard brown variety or maybe the fancy French green ones, which are both fine—but why not try the red type, too? Simmer lentils in a big pot with your favorite aromatic spices and they’ll break down into a thick soup that’ll knock your socks off.


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