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Types of Legumes

By Janet Renee, MS, RD

The plant family legumes encompasses beans, peas, lentils, soybeans and peanuts, the defining characteristics of which is that they contain seed pods that split into two halves. Even though peanuts have the word "nut" in their name because they are nutritionally similar to tree nuts, they belong to the Leguminosae family and have the characteristic split seed pod. Legumes, particularly beans and peas are foods Americans need to eat more of, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.

Peanuts Are Legumes

Peanuts account for close to 70 percent of all nut consumption in the U.S, according to the Peanut Institute, even though they're not actually nuts. Typical of legumes, peanuts grow underground, but like tree nuts, peanuts are high in monounsaturated fat and provide a dense concentration of calories, so a small amount goes a long way. A 1-ounce serving equals about 35 peanuts.

Beans, Peas and Lentils

Legumes are dense in fiber, especially beans and peas, which includes black, pinto, kidney, garbanzo, split peas, Lima beans and black-eyed peas. Fiber promotes healthy cholesterol and digestive health. Beans and peas are also rich in protein and provide good sources of other nutrients such as iron, potassium and folate. Due to their high nutrient content, beans and peas are considered both a vegetable and a protein food, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Lentils are small, round legumes that come in a range of colors, including green and black. Like other legumes, lentils are high in fiber and provide protein. Lentils are commonly added to soups, stews and salads.

Soybeans Are Legumes

Soybeans contain phytochemicals known as isoflavones, making them a unique type of legume. Soy isoflavones and are capable of exerting estrogen-like effects, so they're classified as phytoestrogens. Soybeans provide the richest sources of dietary isoflavones and may offer unique health benefits. Soy isoflavones may relieve menopausal symptoms, protect against osteoporosis and may lower cholesterol, according to the Oregon State University's Linus Pauling institute. However, the LPI cautions that some clinical data has shown mixed results, so more research is needed.

Key Recommendations

Legumes are low-glycemic, rich in nutrients and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer, according to the University of Michigan Health System. It's recommended that you aim to consume one to three servings of legumes each day, according to the University of Michigan Healing Foods Pyramid. You can enjoy beans canned or dried, but canned beans typically contain extra salt, so look for the varieties that state "no salt added." A serving of beans, beans and lentils is one-half cup cooked. Since peanuts are eaten like tree nuts, 1-ounce is the typical serving. This is equivalent to a small handful.

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