More than 11 percent of adults in Indiana have diabetes; nationwide, 29 million Americans struggle to control it. Because complications stemming from diabetes can lead to stroke, heart attacks and kidney damage, it’s a huge health concern. But there’s an easy way to cut your risk of developing it by a third, a new study suggests. People who ate around three and a half servings per week of legumes slashed their risk for diabetes by 35 percent, concluded researchers in a paper published in the journal Clinical Nutrition.
Peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts and many types of beans are in the legume family. They’re nutrient dense and high in fiber, packed with B vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium and contain phytochemicals to boot. They’re also thought to be a low-glycemic food, which is helpful to diabetics, says Allison Sattison, RD, a clinical dietitian at Indiana University Health.
“The high fiber content and low glycemic index, along with the high protein content of legumes, helps prevent the unhealthy sugar spikes and plunges that, if not controlled, can lead to insulin resistance and uncontrolled diabetes,” she says.
Another legume plus, she says, is that “high magnesium content in foods (such as legumes) has been linked to improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance in diabetics.”
Legumes contain a fair amount of carbs at 40 grams per cooked cup, but the 16 grams of fiber and 18 grams of protein help balance out these carbs and help slow their digestion, Sattison explains. This helps control blood sugar levels and prevent sudden spikes because the body has to work harder to digest the high fiber, while the protein helps keep insulin resistance at bay.
In the study of more than 3,300 people who didn’t have diabetes at the start of the study, the researchers noted that lentils appeared to have the strongest association with reduced risk for diabetes. They also found that replacing half a serving of carb- and fat-rich foods such as eggs, bread and potatoes with the same amount of legumes had a preventive effect on their diabetes risk.
Previous studies have noted legumes’ positive effect on diabetes symptoms, such as one funded by legume farmers in 2012 that found a drop in weight and blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels among participants. So many doctors already recommend legumes as part of a healthy diet to help prevent diabetes, although why they appear to be helpful hasn’t been well understood. Legumes are also not part of a traditional American diet, so many patients might not know how to work them into their meals.
“Most of my patients aren’t quite sure what a legume is,” Sattison says, adding that most people are familiar with certain foods in the legume family but didn’t know they were considered legumes.
“It’s more helpful to point out to people examples of legumes when educating them, such as lentils, beans, peas, and nuts, and offering recipe ideas to get them excited to incorporate them into their diets more.”
Adults should get 25 grams to 30 grams of fiber a day, and legumes can make a substantial contribution to that total, with 15 grams of fiber in a half-cup serving. Legumes are also naturally low in sodium, fairly inexpensive and are rich in antioxidants, she says.
Lastly, says Sattison, as always, portion control is particularly important for diabetics. “Taking into account one’s overall diet is key for heart health, or preventing any disease.”
-- By Virginia Pelley