Are legumes a superfood for people living with diabetes?

There is one family of foods that stand out when it comes to preventing and managing Type 2 diabetes.

Andy De Santis, RD 4 minute read November 15, 2021
coloured beans

Legumes are one of the only foods that offer both protein and fibre. GETTY

For people living with diabetes, diet plays a vital role in managing the disease. But there is perhaps one family of foods that stands out, especially for the role they may play in the prevention and management of the most prevalent form, Type 2 diabetes: legumes.

The legume family of foods includes lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, and others. And while peanut butter and soy beans are also legumes, in terms of diabetes prevention, we want to focus on the legume sub-group known as pulses, which does not include those foods.

What’s so great about pulses?
Pulses are likely the most under-appreciated group of foods relative to their immense nutritional value. In fact, they offer so many health benefits

There are a number of foods that are high in protein and others that are high in fibre, but very few are high in both, except for pulses.  One cup of cooked pulses contains between 15 to 20 grams of protein and fibre individually, which are impressive numbers, and lend to a slow rate of digestion and a very low glycemic index score. (The glycemic index is the relative rate at which a food raises blood sugar levels and Diabetes Canada recommends those living with type 2 diabetes to lower glycemic index foods.)

There are few foods rated lower than pulses, in part because they also contain a type of fibre known as soluble fibre, which is very effective at lowering cholesterol and has additional blood sugar benefits owing to its uniquely slow digestion.

Pulses are, in fact, more effective than fibre from other sources at lowering these important markers. They also naturally contain a significant amount of dietary antioxidants and are rich in nutrients which many people don’t consume enough of including potassium, magnesium and zinc.

Pulses and diabetes management
Strategically increasing pulse intake is likely to contribute to improvements in two big markers of interest in those living with diabetes, fasting blood glucose and A1C.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that eating as little as four to five weekly servings of pulses (where a serving is one half of a cup cooked) can have meaningful benefits, with even greater benefits observed in those consuming closer to four to five cups per week (eight to 10 servings) or 2/3 cups per day. In fact, according to a 2016 review paper in the Canadian Diabetes Association journal, “Available evidence provides very good support for a role of regular pulse consumption in the prevention and management of diabetes.”

Pulses and diabetes risk
An individual’s risk for type 2 diabetes is contingent on a wide array of factors that go beyond just dietary choices. With that said, there is some evidence to suggest that individuals who consume legumes most often have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who consume them least often. For example, in a 2018 study published in Clinical Nutrition, researchers saw this result when patients swapped pulses (half cup) daily for a similar quantity of bread (one slice), baked potato (1 medium) or rice (half cup).

So how can we increase our pulse intake?

How to eat more pulses
There are two basic ways to make incorporating more legumes into your daily routine easier. The first is in the form of a convenient snack. You can roast or air fry your own chickpeas, or rely on pre-roasted and pre-portioned convenience products which are widely available. The second is in the form of meals, where legumes — including canned legumes — can be used, such as salads, plant-based dishes, and stews.

No matter how you choose to add them to your diet, the health benefits of legumes are impossible to ignore. And the fact that they are so versatile makes them an easy way to deliciously boost protein and fibre. So what are you waiting for?

Andy’s latest book, 30-Minute Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook: 75 Fuss-Free Recipes for Healthy Eating  is now available for pre-order is an introduction for those with newly diagnosed pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes looking for guidance in understanding the scientific and culinary aspects of eating to improve blood sugar levels.