Get this: by choosing to eat more lentils, peas or dried beans, you might be boosting not only your own health but also that of the planet, right from your own kitchen.
All you really need are pulses – those powerhouse protein sources featured in healthy eating and gourmet cooking blogs alike. These legumes are found almost everywhere and can be efficiently produced without requiring nearly as many planet-draining inputs as meat or dairy often demand.
The value of pulses is particularly emphasized every year on 10 February, declared World Pulses Day by the U.N. to remind us of the vital role these foods can play in boosting nutrition in many parts of the world, while reducing food production’s strain on the Earth and its resources. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO), protein sourced from grain legumes costs one-fifth as much as protein derived from milk.
The U.N. defines pulses as the edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food. Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known pulses, all of which provide protein, fiber and a plethora of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium.
Testament to their ubiquity, pulses form the base of some of the world’s most popular dishes – from chickpea-based hummus common in the Mediterranean to Indian dal made with peas or lentils.
And, unlike much meat and dairy, pulses are low in fat and rich in soluble fiber, which can lower cholesterol and help control blood sugar. In addition, the amino acid balance of grain legume protein complements that of cereals when eaten together, greatly improving the protein quality of the combined food.
In fact, greater use of pulses as a sustainable, plant-based source of healthy eating is just one part of a burgeoning nutrition revolution that dovetails ongoing research that World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is conducting on ‘food trees,’ which are trees that produce edible fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts as well as edible oils. The portfolio of research ICRAF is putting together on these species is designed to improve nutrition in multiple parts of the world.
These tree portfolios, together with pulses that are traditional components of mixed farming systems, are at the center of a healthy diet that can be expanded to incorporate numerous types of nutritious foods and starchy staples. This, in turn, helps to address vitamin, protein, mineral and energy intake needs for a wider ‘diversified diet’ approach, says Stepha McMullin, a scientist at ICRAF with a particular interest in healthy diets, and a developer of the food tree portfolio approach.
“This broader diversity of food and diets is so important for general good health and well-being,” says McMullin, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Diversity of crops is also important from a resilience perspective, which aims to ensure crops are matched with an appropriate environment where they can flourish. Diversity can also mean staggered harvesting seasons, so people have access to food sources throughout the year.
Diversity of foods, including pulses, should also be promoted to offset a “nutrition transition” being witnessed in major metropolises such as Nairobi, where people are moving toward more highly processed, convenience foods, which are increasingly available and quite often cheap – but offer little or no nutritional value, says McMullin.
Many pulses, such as cowpeas and pigeon peas, can do well in drylands environments and can adapt well to dry conditions. Additionally, by using pulses for intercropping and cover crops, farmers can promote farm and soil biodiversity. According to FAO, many varieties of pulses can help to hold or “biologically fix” nitrogen from the air into the soil, improving the fertility and productivity of farmland and possibly contributing to climate change mitigation by reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers that artificially insert nitrogen into the soil.
Think of it as all part of greater global dietary diversity.