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When it comes to healthy eating, it’s standard fare to hear that legumes and whole grains should be, well, part of your standard fare. But why, exactly? And what are legumes, anyway? And what separates whole grains from the less desirable, ubiquitous refined grains?

Lots of questions surround these food groups. Anyone looking to improve their healthy-cooking game should definitely get acquainted with different types of legumes and whole grains. Once you delve into these realms, you’ll find there are so many options that it’s easy to prepare healthy meals without getting stuck in the rut of repetitive eating.

Why Eat Legumes?

Legumes are an excellent source of plant-based protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, unsaturated fats, antioxidants, B vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, folate, manganese, and other vitamins and minerals.

They’re also basically free of saturated fat, and they contain no cholesterol, both of which are primarily found in animal products. This is one key reason legumes are often used as a healthier protein alternative to red meats like beef and pork. Plus, they’re a lower-calorie alternative and generally cheaper, too.

List of Legumes

Legumes are the edible seeds or seedpods of certain plant varieties. This food group encompasses all the different types of beans and peas, as well as a number of other familiar items. The various types of legumes include:

  1. Beans (there are so many different types of beans, but just to name-drop some: soybeans, black beans, kidney beans, lima/butter beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas/cowpeas, navy beans, fava beans, cannellini beans, mung beans, Great Northern beans, lupins, and green beans/string beans, the latter distinct for its edible pod)
  2. Lentils
  3. Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans; there are two types: desi and kabuli chickpeas)
  4. Peas (including varieties like standard garden peas and sweet peas that have inedible pods, snow peas that have an edible pod and snap peas)
  5. Peanuts (that’s right – peanuts aren’t nuts!)

Some Culinary Uses for Legumes

Just as there’s no shortage of different types of legumes, you also have no shortage in ways to eat them. They’re often used in soups and stews, sometimes as the primary ingredient, as well as in well-known preparations like split pea and lentil soup. They also often appear as stand-alone veggie side dishes, salad and pasta dish ingredients, and casserole components.

Edamame is a common soybean snack, and these beans are also used to make familiar meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh. These are go-to protein sources for vegetarians and vegans. Hummus is another major plant-based protein source, made from mashed-up chickpeas blended with oil, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and other seasonings.

And, of course, you can always snack on some peanuts or eat peanut butter to up your legume intake.

The Basics of Preparing Legumes

Many types of beans and other legumes are sold canned, which is a low-cost and convenient way to buy them. They’re ready to eat this way, though most are much more enjoyable once they’re heated up. This can be done easily in a pot on the stovetop or in the microwave. Just heat them through in the liquid they were canned in and add any desired seasonings to taste.

People also often opt to purchase dried legumes in bulk, another convenient and affordable way to go. Except for lentils and black-eyed peas, dried legumes should be rehydrated before cooking by soaking them in water. Pick through them and rinse them to remove any debris first.

For faster rehydration, fully submerse the dried legumes in a pot and bring the water to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat, cover it and let your legumes soak for 1 to 4 hours. If you have more time, skip the boiling and just refrigerate the legumes fully submerged in water for anywhere from around 4 to 12 hours. The time it takes to rehydrate varies by type of legume.

Why Eat Whole Grains?

From a nutrient point of view, whole grains have a good deal in common with legumes. They’re rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, B vitamins, potassium, iron, folate, and other vitamins and minerals. And they too are practically free of saturated fat and contain zero cholesterol.

Research has demonstrated that whole grains also help control cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. And since grains are such a major part of most people’s diets these days, whole grains are also important because they provide long-term satiety and energy. This is in stark contrast to refined grains.

Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains

Grains are edible seeds derived from different types of grasses and other plants (the ones from grasses are also called cereals). Whole grains still have all three components of the seed: the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains, such as those widely found in foods made from white flour, are processed to remove the bran and germ; they lose almost all of their nutritional value along with these two components.

In addition to losing most of their nutrients, refined grains are simple carbohydrates that are absorbed quickly by the body. They cause rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, typically resulting in feelings of hunger and depleted energy within a few hours or less of eating.

Whole grains, on the other hand, are complex carbohydrates that are absorbed more slowly. They are much better for providing a sustained sense of satisfaction and lasting energy after a snack or meal.

What About Enriched Grains?

The term enriched grains sounds great, but although they’re better than non-enriched refined grains, they’re still inferior to whole grains. Enriched grains are just refined grains fortified with some of the vitamins and minerals they lost during processing.

It’s nice to get some of those nutrients added back artificially, but it’s better to just get them naturally from the whole grain. Plus, some beneficial nutrients like the fiber are still missing. The fiber is the most significant part when separating complex from simple carbs, too, so enriched grains aren’t any better than plain old refined grains when causing spikes and crashes in blood glucose levels and the resulting spike in hunger and crash in energy.

List of Whole Grains

You have plenty of choices in whole grains, though a few are certainly much more frequently seen and eaten than the rest, particularly in the standard American diet. Common and relatively widely available whole grains include:

  1. Whole wheat (look for “whole wheat flour” on ingredients’ lists, rather than simply “wheat flour” or “enriched wheat flour”)
  2. Corn (yes, while many people think of corn as a vegetable, it’s actually a grain)
  3. Brown rice and wild rice, which include:
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Sorghum
  • Rye
  • Kamut
  • Buckwheat (one of the non-cereal whole grains that doesn’t derive from a type of grass)
  • Bulgur (also known as cracked wheat)
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Quinoa (another non-cereal whole grain that doesn’t come from a type of grass)
  • Spelt
  • Amaranth (one more non-cereal whole grain that’s not from a type of grass)

Easy Ways to Eat More Whole Grains

You have a practically endless number of ways to get more whole grains in your diet. Here are just a handful of suggestions:

  1. Buy breakfast cereals made from whole wheat, corn or oats/oatmeal (just steer clear of those with tons of added sugar if you’re trying to eat healthy)
  2. Choose whole-wheat pastas, breads, crackers, muffins and other baked goods
  3. Use corn or whole-wheat tortillas instead of regular flour tortillas
  4. Snack on popcorn (but remember that added salt and butter aren’t part of a healthy snack, so skip it or at least keep it to a minimum)
  5. Swap out brown and/or wild rice for white rice
  6. Use barley or quinoa in soups, stews and side dishes
  7. Try out intriguing recipes for dishes made with unusual whole grains like quinoa, farro and kamut