Pulses, Cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet

Sharon Palmer

Pulses—beans, lentils, and peas—are the backbone of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is linked with multiple health benefits. Take a lesson or two on how these humble foods can be nutritious, as well as absolutely delicious, within this cultural eating style. The image above is of a classic dish called Fava, which I learned how to make in Santorini, Greece.

The cat in a Vamos café

As I sat in a sun-drenched outdoor café in the charming village of Vamos, Crete, a black and white cat rubbing against my ankle, the restaurant owner brought out a large bowl of beans to accompany my tomato, olive and cucumber salad. The menu did little to describe how the beans might be prepared, but when they arrived I was pleased. The large, fleshy gigantes beans were cooked to just the right texture—a bit firm on the outside, yet creamy on the inside—and they had been simmered in a broth of tomatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, and fresh oregano. Right before the dish arrived, the chef had drizzled the beans generously with Cretan extra virgin olive oil. And he brought a basket of rustic, toasted bread for an accompaniment, which I used to sop up the savory broth. It might sound simple, yet the meal, pictured below, was one of the most memorable of my entire trip in Greece. In fact, I couldn’t wait to come home and reproduce this entire experience on my blog here.

Gigantes beans, Vamos, Crete

This meal serves as an example of how pulses, including dried beans, lentils, and peas, are at the very backbone of the traditional Mediterranean diet pattern, which reflects the way of eating in 16 countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including countries like Italy, Morocco, Spain, Greece, France, Turkey, and Lebanon. The key feature of this traditional eating style is a focus on plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, and, of course, pulses. The main animal food in the diet is seafood, with moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, and dairy products, and low amounts of red meat.

“Pulses are the humble backbone of Mediterranean cuisine, appearing in numerous traditional Mediterranean dishes. On the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, pulses appear at the base, alongside fruits, vegetables, grains, olive oil, herbs and spices, as these wholesome plant foods are the focus of daily meals,” says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, Program Director at Oldways.

Vamos, Crete

The researcher Ancel Keys, who launched the Seven Countries Study in 1958, is credited as the first to take notice of the associations between the Mediterranean diet and health. (1) At that time, the Mediterranean diet—not really a “diet” but a way of life which had evolved over the millennia in this region—was considered the “poor man’s” diet. Instead of more expensive protein choices, such as red meat, which was not well suited for domestication in the Mediterranean, good old reliable pulses were often turned to as a primary source of protein in this traditional diet. Little did the people of this region suspect that pulses were actually an important facet in their celebrated vitality.

“He walks to work daily and labors in the soft light of his Greek isle, midst the droning of crickets and the bray of distant donkeys, in the peace of his land…His midday, main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables, and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. Other meals are hot dishes of legumes, followed by a tangy salad, then by dates, Turkish sweets, nuts, or succulent fresh fruits. A sharp local wine completes this varied and savory cuisine. This living pattern, repeated six days a week, is climaxed by a happy Saturday evening. He is handsome, rugged, kindly—and virile. His is the lowest heart-attack risk, the lowest death rate, and the greatest life expectancy in the Western world,” Ancel Keys describing the “low-coronary-risk male”, Seven Countries Study.

“Historically, meats and poultry were much more expensive than they are today, making animal protein harder to come by. Additionally, Mediterranean culture prior to the mid-20th century drew heavily from religion, such as Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Islam and Judaism, which dictated frequent periods of religious fasting from meats and poultry. Dried pulses, like chickpeas, lentils, or cannellini beans, offered a more affordable source of protein to Mediterranean people, and are shelf stable to boot,” says Toups.

My family eating lunch in Chania, Crete

Health Benefits in Abundance

Today, we know that a body of evidence links the Mediterranean diet with multiple health benefits. According to Oldways, a nonprofit organization well-known for establishing the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid and its programs, hundreds of studies support the health advantages of the Mediterranean diet, including increased lifespan, improved brain function, rheumatoid arthritis, eye health, and fertility; better weight management; and reduced risk of certain cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. (2) In fact, in the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, a Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern is recommended as one of three eating styles that Americans should consider adapting for optimal health. (3) While it’s the entire eating pattern that provides benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, pulses are truly a key characteristic of this diet. The Dietary Guidelines Healthful Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern recomends 1 ½ cups/week of cooked beans and peas in a 2,000-calorie/day eating plan. (3)

Power in the Pulse

Pulses provide a rich source of nutrients in the traditional Mediterranean diet. A ½-cup serving contains at least 20% of the Daily Value (DV) for fiber, folate, and manganese; at least 10% DV for protein, potassium, iron, magnesium, and copper; and 6-8% of the DV for selenium and zinc; as well as phytochemicals such as alkaloids, flavonoids, saponoins, tannins, and phenolic compounds. The rich lysine content of pulses, when eaten in diets abundant in other plant foods, such as grains, provides a high quality source of protein in the diet with adequate intakes of all amino acids.

John Sievenpiper, MD, PHD, FRCPC, Associate Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto is an expert on pulses, having performed research on their benefits. Sievenpiper says, “Dietary pulses result in clinically meaningful improvements in glycemic control, as well as blood lipids, blood pressure, and body weight. These cardiometabolic benefits of dietary pules translate into an important association with decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease.” He explains that clinical practice guidelines have begun to recognize dietary pulses, as there has been a shift away from nutrient-based recommendations to more food and dietary pattern-based recommendations. “Traditional diets that combine the advantages of different foods result in benefits comparable to those seen with medications and provide the best opportunity for addressing the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” adds Sievenpiper. He recommends that including pulses can be a practical food-based strategy used to the greatest benefits within a healthful dietary pattern, such as the Mediterranean diet.

Chickpeas for sale at the Chania farmers market

Pulses Historical Roots

Pulses are the third largest plant family, with over 19,400 species, according to Sara Rose, Vice President and Director of Government & Industry Affairs for Bush Brothers & Company. She explains that pulses are dry edible seeds with low fat content, and include dried beans, peas, chickpeas, beans, lentils, fava beans/broad beans, black-eyed peas/field peas, pigeon peas, lupines, bambara beans, and vetch.

Members of the pulse family were among the first cultivated plants in the Mediterranean. In many sunny regions around the Mediterranean Sea, the inhabitants turned to farming for sustenance, and pulses were easy to grow, requiring fewer agricultural inputs and resources, and the harvest could be stored for months on end. These plants have the ability to obtain nitrogen from the atmosphere through the action of special bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. This nitrogen goes into the production of protein for humans when we eat pulses, and when the plant dies it returns nitrogen to the soil, building up soil fertility. This was an important facet for the nutrient-poor soil in the Mediterranean region. (4) There is great variety in the Mediterranean’s pulses. Native to the region are the important pulses fava, lentils and chickpeas, as well as lupine bean, bittervetch, and field peas. Other pulses were introduced later on, such as the cowpea from East Africa, tepary bean from the Americas, and lima bean from Peru. (4)

“Historically, people did plant and eat pulses, before developed nations came and told them to grow and eat other things that weren’t as well suited for them,” says Jenny Chandler, a British food writer and UN Food and Agriculture Organization European Ambassador for the International Year of the Pulses. “Pulses have an extraordinary, long storage life; they can last for months dried or canned, and they can be planted again in times of disaster. They have a long root system and they can grow in marginal areas, and can be grown as an intercrop with other crops. They are adaptive; they have been grown for hundreds of years, and they have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which means less synthetic fertilizers. They are highly water efficient, requiring less water to grow than wheat or rice or animal foods and they contribute to food security.”

Beans for sale in a Greek market

Delicious Pulse Dishes from the Mediterranean

“From Middle Eastern hummus to Italian minestrone, pulse dishes illustrate the elegant simplicity of Mediterranean cooking. Each Mediterranean community gives its own signature spin to recipes, but pulses remain a common thread across a wide variety of religions, cultures, and climates,” says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, Program Director of Oldways. She shares some classic pulse dishes from the Mediterranean.

  • In Italy, pulses are featured in vegetable soups like pasta e fagioli (a hearty bean and pasta soup) and minestrone (a vegetable soup with beans and pasta or rice).
Heirloom Bean Cassoulet with Root Vegetables
  • In France, white beans are the main ingredient of cassoulet, the delicious peasant soup that is slowly cooked in an earthenware pot.
  • Fasolada, a white bean soup, is the national dish of both Greece and Cyprus, while the Turkish equivalent,   kuru fasulye, is the national dish of Turkey.
Pistachio Hummus
  • Hummus, a creamy dip made with chickpeas and tahini (sesame paste) has Arab roots, but is now revered throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.
  • Chickpeas can also be ground with spices and shaped into balls or patties to make   falafel, a delicious Middle Eastern street food.
  • Moudammas is a cooked fava bean dish popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, while favas also play a significant role in Italian cooking (both in pasta dishes and vegetable sides).
  • Lentils can be pureed with spices to make   moujaddara, a Middle Eastern hummus-like dip.
Smoky Lentil Chili
  • In Tuscany, lentils are cooked as a staple of the New Year’s Day meal, as lentils symbolize good luck and prosperity in Italy due to their coin-like shape.
Greek Butter Bean Salad

Applying Lessons from the Mediterranean to Promoting Pulses

There are so many reasons—and ways—to maximize pulses within a healthful eating pattern. “Incorporating more pulses into your meals is a great way to honor the spirit of the Mediterranean diet, while still allowing ample room for creativity. While ‘pulses’ aren’t yet a household name in the US, Western favorites, like burgers, casseroles, and dips, are actually very well suited for this versatile food group,” says Toups.

Pulses can be incorporated in each meal occasion: at breakfast with breakfast bean burritos or English-style baked beans, at snack-time with roasted chickpeas and hummus, for lunch with entrée salads sprinkled with kidney beans or lentil soup, and at dinner with entrees such as chili, bean stews, chickpea curry, and falafels.

Toups also suggests that black beans can add sustenance to veggie burger patties, and hold up beautifully to any number of burger toppings. “Hummus, black bean dips, and fava dips make delicious appetizers or game day bites, especially when paired with whole grain crackers or vegetable crudités. And chili recipes, the pride of many home cooks, are delicious when made with kidney beans or other pulses,” adds Toups.

Beet White Bean Hummus

Tips for Powering Up on Pulses

“We have so many reasons to eat pulses, but why don’t we?” asks Jenny Chandler, author of Pulse: Truly Modern Recipes for Beans, Chickpeas, and Lentils, to Tempt Meat Eaters and Vegetarians Alike. She shares the following tips to help your clients embrace pulses as part of a healthful Mediterranean eating style and beyond.

  1. Learn How to Cook Pulses. Chandler believes that the length of cooking time can be a barrier for the consumption of pulses. Learning about various cooking methods, such as overnight soaking, quick-soak method, using a pressure cookers, and slow-cooking beans can help people understand how to prepare and include these foods in the diet more often.
  2. Canned Pulses are OK. Canned beans are “natural ingredients”, an important key to making them more accessible in the diet, suggests Chandler. Indeed, canned beans are available in an increasing array of varieties, and typically include only three ingredients, pulses, water, and salt (which can be omitted in unsalted canned beans).
  3. Ditch the “Poor Man’s” Stigma. Chandler says that pulses have long carried the stigma of being an inferior, “cheap” food source, to be replaced with meat once a person can afford it. However, dietitians can break through this stereotype by highlighting the environmental, nutritional, and culinary benefits of this food.
  4. Get Past the Gas. Concerns over increased flatulence has always been a barrier for eating more pulses. Educating clients about slowly introducing pulses in the diet, along with drinking plenty of fluids, can help people reduce the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.
  5. Get Inspiration. The Mediterranean diet is rich in a variety of flavorful dishes inspired by pulses.
  6. Join the Plant-Based Movement. Pulses are perfectly poised to replace animal proteins more often as part of the growing flexitarian movement, which sees people reduce animal protein consumption in lieu of more plant proteins. “If you look at the Mediterranean diet, you can see there is nothing new about the flexitarian diet, they have been eating this diet for a thousand years,” says Chandler.

Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Try a few of my favorite Mediterranean pulse recipes, including:

Fava (Vegan, Gluten-Free)
Cretan Gigantes Beans (Vegan, Gluten-Free)

Read about my experience of plant-powered eating in Greece here.

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