The Nutritional Value of Beans: A Versatile Superfood

Pulses (beans, peas, and lentils) have incredible nutritional value, show links to longevity, and can reduce your risk of chronic disease.

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Last updated: Apr 9th, 2023
Nutritional Value of Beans

In the United States, pulses are often overlooked as sources of quality nutrition in favor of animal proteins, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Even though pulses can function as fiber, carbohydrate, and protein, consumption of pulses in the United States are low. Studies have found that diets high in pulses such as beans, lentils, and peas are linked to longevity and reduced risk of chronic illness. Additionally, they make up a large part of the diets of people living in Blue Zones — areas in the world where people have the highest quality and length of life. There are many reasons to increase your intake of pulses; read on to find out more.

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The differences between legumes and pulses

Pulses fall under the Fabaceae (also known as legume) family of flowering plants, which consists of over 20,000 different species. Legumes typically refer to the whole plant, including stems, leaves, and pods. Peanuts, soybeans, green beans, and green peas are legumes but aren’t considered pulses. Pulses are only the edible seed of the legume, harvested when dry. Therefore, all pulses are legumes, but not all legumes are pulses. There are hundreds of pulses, but some of the most popular include:

  • Pinto beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • Mung beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Dry peas

Pulses are consumed worldwide, especially in Latin America, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. Intake in these areas averages out to between 33 and 34g of cooked pulses per day, making them a cemented and regular part of their diet. A U.S. study examined results from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1999-2002 and found that less than 8% of Americans were eating pulses daily, with the main varieties being canned or dry beans (black, kidney, pinto, and so on).

Although this statistic might seem dated, researchers state that not much has changed. Some barriers to consuming and being exposed to different pulses include culture or ethnicity. For example, a Canadian study with twice the sample size of the NHANES U.S. study attributed results showing a high consumption of mung beans to the fact that a large portion of study participants were of Asian ethnicity.

Health benefits of pulses

Pulses are powerhouses of nutrition comprised of 60-65% carbohydrates, including soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, and resistant starch. While pulses are excellent sources of protein, they aren’t considered complete proteins. They contain 21-25% protein, which provide some, but not all, essential amino acids such as tryptophan, lysine, arginine, cystine, and methionine. Pulses are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, including:

  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Potassium
  • Polyphenols
  • Phosphorus
  • Folate
  • Thiamin
  • Choline
  • Selenium
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids, like linoleic acid
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids, like oleic acid

Similar to whole grains, pulses are more nutritious with their husk intact, particularly lentils. Milling lentils to remove their husks or hulls reduces their levels of antioxidants. Like many fruits and vegetables, the darker they are, the more antioxidants they have.

Cardiovascular disease and cancer

Due to their high nutritional value, pulses can lower the risk of many chronic diseases. Because of their high fiber content, they mitigate the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and reducing sharp rises in blood sugar. However, this refers to regular consumption; researchers found that eating pulses and legumes four times a week lowers the risk of coronary artery disease by 14%. Another study found those who ate pulses and legumes four times a week over 19 years were 22% less likely to develop heart disease and 11% less likely to have strokes and heart attacks. Eating pulses can also raise HDL, or “good” cholesterol, and lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.

Consuming pulses may lower the risk of cancer due to their high-fiber, nutrient-rich natures. Research has linked a high-fiber diet to a potentially lower risk of colorectal cancer. Your body doesn’t completely digest the fiber in pulses. Instead, the fiber becomes prebiotics, food for the gut microbiome. The bacteria in the gut microbiome break down fiber and produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) such as butyrate. Research has linked butyrate to a lower risk of inflammation, which can lead to cancer.

Metabolic diseases

As a low glycemic index food, pulses may lower the risk and mitigate the severity of diabetes. A 2008 Chinese study found that eating ⅓ of a cup of legumes (including pulses) per day reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 38%. However, more research is needed to examine the relationship between pulses and diabetes to confirm this.

Because pulses contain high levels of fiber, consuming them can increase satiety and leave you less prone to snacking after meals. The insoluble fiber and resistant starch slow digestion, helping you feel fuller for longer. Another study that examined results from the NHANES found that those who ate beans (a type of pulse) weighed less and had smaller waist circumferences than those who didn’t. Those who consumed beans were also 22% less likely to have obesity.


The nutrient-rich, disease-fighting nature of pulses earned them a place in the diets of the healthiest people in the world, those who live in Blue Zones. There are five studied Blue Zones: Loma Linda, California, USA; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan. People who live in these areas are often centenarians, people who live to be over 100 years old. Some researchers believe their lifestyles, diets, creeds, and relationships all contribute to their long lives. While simply consuming more pulses and plant-based food may not ensure a lifespan of 100 years, it may be able to improve your health and inspire more beneficial lifestyle changes.

Not only are pulses beneficial to physical health, but they are a cost-effective solution for those facing food insecurity. Pulses have a long shelf life and offer versatility in the kitchen. Lentils and chickpeas can be ground down to flour and used to make baked goods, steamed bread, or soups and porridges. In places where animal proteins are scarce or expensive, pulses can fill the gaps and provide high-quality plant-based protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Consuming more pulses benefits the environment as much as it does physical health. Research has found that legume crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than other types of crops by absorbing more carbon into the soil, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Because legume crops make their own nitrogen, they minimize the use of nitrogen fertilizers and increase the health of the soil. The nitrogen residues in the soil from legume crops improve the health of other crops during rotation.

How to include pulses in your diet

With the wide variety of pulses available, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Instead of buying a pulse or two at random, understanding how other people eat pulses can provide inspiration and instruction. Pulses are a staple food in many cultures all over the world. Expand your horizons and cook a delicious Indian dal, a hearty Persian beef stew, or a crunchy Korean-inspired chicken and navy bean burger. Whether you’re adventurous in the kitchen or want to keep it simple, strive to eat 1.5 cups per week (for a 2,000-calorie diet), as recommended by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

If you opt for canned pulses, try to check the nutrition labels to avoid consuming too much added salt or sugar. The canning process can also alter some aspects of the pulse (depending on the type), including slightly reducing its protein content or changing its color.

Consuming pulses also comes with a natural risk of developing gas and bloating due to their high-fiber content. However, the health benefits are well worth these minor, albeit normal, discomforts.

Safe preparation, cooking, and storage of pulses

Preparing pulses

The methods of safely preparing dried pulses for cooking differ depending on the type. Some only require rinsing, while others need to soak. The following list goes over some of these differences and additional details:

Split Peas

Split peas need to be rinsed with water but don’t require soaking. Dried whole peas, on the other hand, do require a soak.


Dried beans require soaking to reduce cooking time and remove lectins. Red kidney beans are one of the more common beans that contain high levels of lectin, specifically phytohaemagglutinin, which can cause extreme nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain within 1-3 hours of eating only four or five raw beans. Phytohaemagglutinin poisoning is only caused by consuming raw or undercooked kidney beans. The FDA recommends that kidney beans need to be soaked for at least five hours and then boiled for 30 minutes to completely destroy phytohaemagglutinin. For other types of beans, the USDA’s MyPlate site details three methods you can use for soaking. And when it comes to canned beans, even though most are ready to eat, the USDA still recommends rinsing and draining them first.


Chickpeas, like beans, require a soak. You can do an overnight soak using three cups of cold water per cup of dried chickpeas, then letting the pulses soak for 8-24 hours before draining. If time is of the essence, you can do a quick soak by using three cups of cold water per cup of chickpeas, boiling the pulses for two minutes, taking them off the heat, covering and letting the chickpeas stand for one hour, then finally draining.


Dried lentils, like split peas, don’t require a soak and can just be rinsed. However, the USDA does mention that soaking lentils for a few hours can improve your ability to digest them and reduce overall cooking time.

Cooking pulses

The cooking times for pulses, similar to preparation methods, can vary depending on the type and variety. Below, we’ll detail the usual cooking times and how they might differ. Additionally, for each pulse listed, a half cup of dry is equivalent to one cup cooked.

Split Peas

For cooking, use two cups of water per cup of dried split peas, combine the water and pulses in a pot, and bring it to a boil. Let the split peas simmer for 35-40 minutes.


Use two cups of water for every cup of dried beans and bring it to a boil. Let the beans simmer at a low temperature for 1-2 hours (larger beans may take longer to cook). It’s also important to note that you should never cook kidney beans in a slow cooker — the appliances don’t reach high enough temperatures to destroy toxins.


For each cup of dried chickpeas, use three cups of water. After combining, bring the water to a boil and let them simmer for 1.5-2 hours.


When cooking dried lentils, the liquid required and cooking time vary between types of lentils. Brown and green lentils need two and a half cups of water per cup of dried lentils and should simmer for 30 minutes. Cooking red and yellow lentils requires one and a half cups of water per cup of the dried pulse and a simmer time of around 15 minutes.

For more information on cooking the pulses listed above, USA Pulses offers quick 3-step guides to the process. And the USDA MyPlate website has a multitude of healthy recipes for split peas, beans, chickpeas, and lentils.

Storing pulses

The methods for storing pulses of all types are generally the same — If dried, they can be stored in an airtight container in your pantry, while cooked pulses in airtight containers can be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. The list below details the length of time pulses can be kept, depending on the storage environment.

  • Dried pulses last 1-2 years in the pantry
  • Unopened cans of pulses in your pantry can be stored for several years (as long as the can is in good condition)
  • Cooked pulses or opened cans can be stored for up to five days in the refrigerator
  • Frozen cooked pulses can last in your freezer for around six months


Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

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