2016 has been declared “International year of Pulses” by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has particular responsibility for overseeing International Year of Pulses (IYP).  IYP 2016 aims to raise public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.

What are pulses and why are they important?

Pulse crops include lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas.  They provide a valuable source of plant-based proteins for people around the world, particularly in developing countries where they may be the main source of protein.

Pulses are part of a healthy, balanced diet and have been shown to have an important role in preventing illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Pulses are a low fat source of protein, with a high fibre content and low glycemic index. Additionally, they are high in both soluble and insoluble forms of fibre. Soluble fibre helps decrease blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels while insoluble fibre helps with digestion and regularity. Pulses provide important amounts of vitamins and minerals. Some of the key minerals in pulses include: iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Pulses are also particularly rich in B vitamins; including folate, thiamin and niacin.

In addition to contributing to a healthy, balanced diet, the nutritional qualities of pulses make them particularly helpful in the fight against some non-communicable diseases. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 80% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes and over a third of cancers could be prevented by eliminating risk factors, such as unhealthy diets and promoting better eating habits, of which pulses are an essential component.

Eating pulses as a replacement to some animal protein also helps limit the intake of saturated fats and increases the intake of fibres. Further, some traditional eating patterns include pulses and are associated with higher rates of long life e.g. the Japanese (soy, tofu, miso), the Swedes (brown beans, peas), and the Mediterranean people (lentils, chickpeas, white beans).

4-5 serves of legumes a week are recommended for people with Type 2 diabetes and their nutritional benefits are great  for people with type 1 diabetes also.

If you are not familiar with pulses then using canned ready to use forms are an easy way to start. It is also wise to start with small amounts so that your body has time to adjust to the higher fibre content. Some of the easiest ways to use pulses involve using them as part-replacement for meat. They can be combined with mince in rissoles/meat patties or meat loaves, or used to extend casserole/stew type mixtures.

For great recipes see: http://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/healthy-living/healthy-eating/free-healthy-food-cookbooks “Full o’ Beans”.