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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 20, 2016

Where Do Legumes Belong in the Primal Eating Plan?

By Mark Sisson
54 Comments

Legumes in lineI never cared much for legumes growing up. Growing up, beans were the “magical (or musical) fruit that made you toot.” They existed in a quantum state: beans were your ally in schoolyard rear-facing attacks and your downfall during encounters with that pretty girl from history class. But the issues I had were mostly superficial. I’ve never come out strongly against legumes. My focus has always been on grain avoidance.

Way back, I placed beans and lentils and other legumes in the “Okay” category. If you wanted to eat them, and you had carb calories to spare, they were a decent choice. Flatulence aside, they are relatively nutritious and come with a big dose of prebiotic fiber for your gut flora (hence the gas).

Huh? You might be having one of two reactions:

Sisson says legumes are back on the menu, boys! Let’s go grab some Taco Bell bean burritos!

Sisson just put legumes at the bottom of the PB Food Pyramid! He’s sold out to Big Bean! Get him!

Before you either tar and feather me or subject your office mates to chemical warfare, allow me to explain.

Stephan over at Whole Health Source wrote an interesting article a few years back alleging that paleolithic (and some extant) hunter-gatherers did (and do) utilize wild legumes.

Stephan cites several examples:

The !Kung San from southern Africa, who in amenable regions eat large amounts of wild tsin beans. Tsin beans are about 33/33/33 fat/protein/carb, kind of a cross between a peanut and bean.

The Australian Aboriginals, who ate a lot of acacia seeds. These days, acacia fiber is a popular prebiotic supplement, but the whole seed was a legume providing ample protein, fat, and calories for the native inhabitants.

The tribes of the American Southwest, who ate the starchy legumes of the mesquite tree.

The Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave, Iraq and Spy Cave, Belgium, whose dentals fossils showed residues from wild legumes related to peas and fava beans.

With regards to the Neanderthals, I doubt they formed a large part of their diet; they were well-known fans of animal flesh. I don’t know that they should form a large part of your diet, either. But legumes were there. As I said earlier, someone had to stumble upon and eat the wild versions before domesticating them.

Okay, so in that sense, legumes are “Primal.” There is ancestral precedent.

But that’s not enough to sanction their use. We’re not in the paleo re-enactment business here. We plumb the anthropological record for hypotheses, but we check them against the current scientific literature.

What does research say about legume consumption? Aren’t they full of anti-nutrients?

I refer to lectins and phytic acid. I’ve mentioned these mostly as a reason to avoid grains and excessive amounts of nuts, but they also apply to legumes. No self-respecting plant wants their seed babies eaten and fully digested, after all.

Lectins are definite anti-nutrients. Studies show that they can damage the intestinal lining, prey upon already-damaged intestinal lining, and prevent the body from repairing that damage. If they make it into the bloodstream, they can bind to cell membranes throughout the body, trigger autoimmune reactions, and cause real havoc. People have actually been hospitalized from lectin poisoning.

However, cooking deactivates the vast majority of legume lectins.

In one study, navy and kidney beans had as little as 0.1% residual lectins after cooking.

Pressure cooking is particularly good at degrading lectins. One study found that pressure cooking kidney beans for 30 minutes eliminated all hemagglutinin activity.

Soaking does a number on them as well. A combo of soaking and cooking white beans completely eliminated activity of the most pernicious lectin, the one responsible for kidney bean poisoning: phytohemagglutinin.

It turns out that most of the research indicting legume lectins used animals consuming large amounts of raw lectins. Those people who got lectin poisoning? They ate undercooked kidney beans.

How about phytic acid?

Phytic acid is how many plants store phosphorus. When you eat a food containing phytic acid, it has a side effect of binding to several other minerals, like calcium, magnesium, and zinc, and inhibiting their absorption. Diets based in high-phytate foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies. As legumes are one such high-phytate food, people are justifiably cautious about eating them.

As I’ve mentioned before, phytic acid may have some beneficial anti-cancer effects in moderate doses. In people with excess iron, phytic acid may bind to and reduce iron’s absorption. The right gut bacteria can even convert phytic acid into inositol before it binds to minerals, providing a helpful nutrient that improves mood and insulin sensitivity.

Soaking legumes can reduce phytic acid. In one study using the common bean, cooking without soaking reduced phytate by 20%, cooking after soaking in the soaking water reduced it by 53%, and cooking after soaking in fresh water reduced it by 60%. Another study, also in common beans, found that cooking in fresh water after 16 hours of soaking with a 3:1 water:bean ratio eliminated 85% of phytate.

If you want to really eliminate phytic acid (which is probably unecessary unless you’re eating tons of legumes), you’ll want to soak and sprout your legumes. In one study, soaking for 12 hours and sprouting for 5 days reduced phytate in both adzuki beans and fava beans.

Legume-based diets? Bad. You’re asking for nutrient deficiencies.

Properly-prepared legumes added to a nutritious diet? Fine. You’re introducing some helpful nutrients without negating your absorption of others.

What about the carb content?

The legume’s musicality offsets its carbohydrate density. All those sugars and fibers being digested by gut bugs and producing the farts are carbs that you aren’t consuming as glucose. I usually don’t pay too much attention to “net carbs,” but the effect is quite substantial in the majority of legumes.

A half cup of cooked black beans has 20 grams of carbs with 7.5 coming from fiber.

A half cup of cooked chickpeas has 30 grams of carbs with 5 coming from fiber.

A half cup of cooked pinto beans has 22 grams of carbs with 7.7 coming from fiber.

A half cup of cooked lentils has 20 grams of carbs with 7.8 coming from fiber.

Not so carb-dense after all.

What about the gas?

Legumes are a powerful source of FODMAPs, which, depending on your gut biome, can be ally or enemy. Some people won’t be able to handle the gas, while others will get huge prebiotic benefits. What can you do if you fall into the former category?

  • Don’t eat them. You won’t be missing any nutrients you can’t get elsewhere. Legumes aren’t the worst thing, but they aren’t essential either.
  • Soak them. Soaking and then cooking beans reduces the oligosaccharides responsible for the gas by up to 41% while increasing the prebiotic fiber content. Just make you discard the soaking water.
  • Eat very small amounts that don’t trigger unwanted effects. Only increase your intake once you achieve a comfortable dose.

And remember: the majority of a legume’s fiber is prebiotic. A healthy gut biome will make good use of that fiber, producing short chain fatty acids and bolstering the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Those with unhealthier gut biomes may have to take it easy, but given enough time and acclimatization eating small amounts of legumes could improve their profile.

Are they actually nutritious, though?

Legumes aren’t nutrient-dense compared to something like liver or oysters, but they’re more nutrient-dense than grains and many other foods.

Again, a half cup of beans isn’t very many carbs. Maybe 20 grams, with only two thirds of that turning into glucose. You’ll get a lot of food for your gut and a decent whack of some important nutrients like folate, copper, magnesium, and manganese. That half cup of black beans provides 32% of your daily folate requirements, 20% of copper, 14% of magnesium, and 17% of manganese. A half cup of lentils provides 45% of your daily folate requirements along with 28% of copper and 21% of manganese. Not bad for a measly 20 grams of carbs.

The biggest bang for your buck is probably the lentil.

Take a look at a cup of your average garden-variety lentil:

  • 40 grams carbs, almost 16 g fiber.
  • 230 calories.
  • 18 grams protein. It’s not prime rib or egg protein, but it’s still helpful in the context of diet that includes animal foods.
  • 90% of folate.
  • 28% of vitamin B1, 25% of vitamin B5, and 21% of B6. B vitamins generally aren’t issues for folks eating Primal, but B1 is a common stumbling block.
  • 55% of copper (good if you’re not one to eat ruminant liver, another great source of copper).
  • 17% of magnesium.
  • 43% of manganese.

Lentils added to a meal slow gastric emptying, which should keep a person fuller longer. This is in contrast to most sources of refined carbs, which increase a person’s hunger.

Another benefit is that lentil prep is simple. They contain less phytic acid than most other legumes and require less soaking and cooking time than other legumes to reduce it.

I almost forgot. If you can find a Japanese market near you, look for possibly the best legume dish around: natto. I’ve spoken about this slimy, mucosal fermented soybean before. While it takes some getting used to (and many never get over the hump), natto is the single best source of vitamin K2 in the world. Try it mixed with soy sauce and ginger.

How should Primal people eat legumes? Assuming you’re even interested.

A little bit goes a long way. You don’t need to be pounding bowls of beans. But sprinkling some on your salad a few times a week? Opting for a scoop of (whole, not refried unless you know they use real lard) pinto beans alongside your carne asada? Dipping a carrot stick or two into good homemade hummus? The Primal gods will not smite you where you stand.

What do you think, folks? Where do you fall in the legume wars?

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54 Comments on "Where Do Legumes Belong in the Primal Eating Plan?"

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Elizabeth
7 months 3 days ago

Love the balanced approach! As a former (30+ years) vegetarian, I consumed more than my fair share of beans, which is probably the main reason I avoid them now. But every now and then I’ll add some to a burrito bowl, and I genuinely enjoy lentils from time to time. As a raw vegan, I used to soak and sprout my lentils and they were a nice addition to a salad. Anyone have any thoughts or experience with that?

tribesman
tribesman
7 months 2 days ago

So you used to a full on raw vegan and switched to primal ? What happenned ?

Towania
Towania
6 months 18 days ago

I ate a raw diet for 6 months. I was hungry all the time and didn’t lose much weight (needrd to lose 30 lbs at the time)0. Low carb is the better option for me.

Harold
6 months 30 days ago

I’ve tried soaking lentils and eating them uncooked. I found them to be much harder to digest that way. They are much easier for me to digest when they are cooked.

Frank
Frank
7 months 3 days ago

Love this article. I include some black beans into the mix on occasion, but it always felt like a “cheat,” which is silly. Clearly, this is a nuanced topic (like most of nutrition). But the approach of “moderation” applies, per usual!

Alex
Alex
7 months 3 days ago

Great tips about the soaking/sprouting, Mark. We already include certain nuts into the Paleo/Primal diet with some caveats. The same should applies to certain legumes.

Dave
Dave
7 months 3 days ago

Beans, beans the magical…legume? Clearly not a fruit. Anyway, I’m on board with having beans on occasion. Flatulence aside, I’d rather get my carbs/nutrients from soaked legumes (which DO have some good nutritional content) than a million other places.

Harry Mossman
Harry Mossman
7 months 3 days ago

I eat a moderate amount of good organic canned beans. No, I am not going to soak them at home, let alone sprout them, nor am I going to limit them to a sprinkle on a salad once a week. I put them in chili. Gasp! I often eat them refried with Mexican food. And I sometimes eat them as a side dish.

Tommylee
Tommylee
7 months 3 days ago

We have all have all heard of the pairing of black beans and rice. Well my take is organic canned black beans over cold boiled potatoes with maybe some other raw veggies such as tomatoes, cucumbers, celery onions, etc. Almost a meal. Just add a bit of animal protein.

Darko
Darko
7 months 3 days ago

I prefer lentils. Soak them for 48 hours for best taste and least flatulence. Add some dried kombu for iodine and smoked bacon skin for taste.

Alisa
7 months 3 days ago

The mighty lentil! I soak, sprout, and lightly steam them afterwards as that makes them easier to digest. A salad with these lentils, sardines, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and goat cheese or avocado is one of my quick go-to dinners when there’s not much else in the house. Speaking of natto, Sriracha really adds a lot of dimension to their otherwise blandly funky flavor.

Nocona
Nocona
7 months 3 days ago

About once a month I’ll have some frijoles (refried beans). They taste great, but I always feel overly stuffed afterwards. I feel much less stuffed after a steak and salad.

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
7 months 3 days ago

Sophomoric humor (my favorite according to my wife) aside, I don’t eat beans as they just don’t agree with me and they are not necessary enough to warrant taking time to soak them. Back in the day I did love to eat black bean burgers etc. but they were just too harsh for my digestive system. If there happens to be some in a bowl of soup I order at a deli or whatever I don’t freak out about it.

barry
barry
7 months 3 days ago

I eat sprouted lentils and sprouted chickpeas in salads. I’ve always maintained the personal opinion that the paleo community needs to either remove nuts and seeds from the acceptable food list or add legumes to it. It never made since to me for them to accept nuts and seeds but shun legumes. They all have the very same anti-nutrients and indigestible hulls. They all need to be either soaked or ideally sprouted. I personally believe magnesium deficiency is so common because people are eating too many phytates.

John
7 months 3 days ago

The only legumes I bother eating are peanuts (in the form of peanut butter). Sorry, but no other nut butter is as delicious as a good organic peanut butter!

HealthyHombre
HealthyHombre
7 months 3 days ago

John, the health food store I shop at has organic almond chips in a “nut grinder” (or whatever it’s called) so you just pull the lever and make your own almond butter (they also have one with peanuts). I like the taste better than the peanut butter. I don’t eat it much any more I just eat whole nuts (cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans) but in any case … different strokes for different folks … enjoy your peanut butter! 🙂

Andrea
Andrea
7 months 3 days ago

I like to cook a bunch of garbanzo (chickpea) beans in the crock pot over night, then drain them and make hummus. Delicious! I also used to make a big pot of lentil stew with cut up sausages in it– a habit to start up again now that the cooler months are coming here in Northern California. And pan-fried kidney or black beans cooked up with eggs is my version of huevos rancheros.

Linda
Linda
7 months 3 days ago

I love hummus, but whenI have too much it makes me feel uncomfortably bloated, so I consider it a “cheat”. I have it maybe four, five times a year. Other than that, my boyfriend hates all legumes because they are “mealy”, so we never have them anyway.

We do have green beans, sugar snaps or snow peas slightly more often though and they don’t seem to trouble me. I suspect because they are mostly pod, and not so much seed. What is the primal verdict on the pod?

primalplum
primalplum
7 months 3 days ago

I almost felt relieved to not have to eat them when I went primal. I don’t really like them but had always been told how “good for you” they were. They were easy for me to give up and I don’t miss them. I do notice when I’ve indulged at a Mexican restaurant that their version do NOT agree with me.
I will admit, they do make some dishes, such as a burrito bowl or a tostada salad. And chili. Chili just isn’t chili without the beans, at least to me!

Katie
Katie
7 months 3 days ago

I rarely eat beans. If I’m going to eat something a little higher in carbs I usually opt for root vegetables or different varieties of squash. Lately (as weird as this sounds) I’ve been taking mashed rosemary butternut squash and topping it with 2 eggs for breakfast. Surprisingly a phenomenal dish.

obruhn
obruhn
7 months 3 days ago

Hi
The 3 questions I’d like answers to are how much? how often? were they preferred?
Seeds ripen and are available for a relative short period – depending on the plant weeks or may be a months or so. Were beans etc preferred? Or were they are starvation food? They are certainly difficult to collect and fiddly. They also tend to need cooking to make them palatable which is a very recent technology.
What do I do: I tend to avoid them. They are in the 10pc. But I will usually put something else in the 10 pc for preference. OB

Eugenia
7 months 2 days ago
You can cook beans inside the belly of the animal. Back then, you would put the whole animal on a spit,and turn it constantly over a fire. All the offal is removed and it’s cooked separately, with the intestines holding together the rest of the offal organs in a separate spit oven (so basically you put each organ on the spit, and then you use the intestines as a way to not fall off the spit). So, you put VEGGIES in the empty belly of the animal. This is how it was done in Grece until recent years too (now,… Read more »
Amanda
Amanda
7 months 3 days ago

I will have peanuts or peanut butter maybe once a month or so. It sounds weird, but I do this not so much for the taste, (I can take it or leave it) but mainly because I’m concerned about suddenly becoming allergic to peanuts and thereby having to watch out for it everywhere.
I wonder if I should be concerned or not?

Shary
Shary
7 months 2 days ago

Amanda, that seems pretty paranoid to me. It’s doubtful that you would acquire an allergy to peanuts by not eating them.

Gina Brusca
3 months 27 days ago

I’m no expert, but I don’t think you need to worry about a sudden allergy. I kind of feel that way about digestion, though. I worry that completely eliminating a food from my diet will reduce the gut bacteria needed to digest it.

Helen
7 months 3 days ago

How about fermented legumes, such as South Indian dosa, idli, uttapham, etc?

Aria
Aria
7 months 3 days ago

I dislike most beans, except chickpeas and lentils. I sometimes, rarely, have chickpea hummus and dahl. I make a marvelous dahl, just lentils. I hate it with kidney beans. I always soak the lentils and cook them for hours. 🙂

Paul
Paul
7 months 3 days ago

Unless you’re on early phase Atkins level carb restrictions (20-50 grams of carbs daily) a moderate amount of legumes be can a good cheap way of getting extra protein.

Margie
Margie
7 months 3 days ago

Lentils are also a good source of Iron, but the iron is better absorbed when eaten with a good source of Vitamin C.

Elizabeth
7 months 3 days ago

Personally, I eat them occasionally. There are only so many legumes that I can stand.

Lavues
7 months 3 days ago

Amazing, such detailed information!

beto
7 months 3 days ago

I know it is Rice cereal. This, although it is part of the padraão rice-bean combination, is much lower in nutrients. So there’s no reason for your consumption, ok?

2Rae
2Rae
7 months 3 days ago

I like beans but they don’t like me back. I always gain weight even on small amounts and the bloat isn’t my kind of fun AND since I’m not a young boy, the toots aren’t entertaining to me either.

Brun
Brun
1 month 7 days ago

Hey, Old boys find them entertaining as well.

Shary
Shary
7 months 2 days ago

I hardly ever eat beans. Other than the slow-cooked baked beans I make from a 200 year old New England recipe, I just don’t like them very much. One useful tip if you use dried beans: Soak them overnight, then use fresh water when you cook them–not the soaking water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes, then change the water again. Continue simmering until tender. This might eliminate some of the nutrients, but it also eliminates most of the flatulence.

shannon
shannon
7 months 2 days ago

I eat Southern peas, also known as field peas, because they are very easy to grow in the South. They love hot weather, withstand drought, and have no pests. Queen Anne blackeye pea grows particularly well for me. You can eat them fresh (before they dry up in the pod) or let them dry in the pod; then soak and cook.

Eugenia
7 months 2 days ago
Alright, here’s the deal with beans: I’ve been Primal since Sept 2011 (exactly 5 years now). I even went paleo-keto for a while, which didn’t work for me at all (made me hypothyroid). I have major gut problems, and on my best days, I’d get 1 incident per week, and on my worst days, 3 incidents per week (that’s down from 3-5 times a DAY pre-paleo). Even at higher carb Primal (anywhere between 75gr net and 150 gr net), I always kept dreaming of rice and beans. Literally, dreaming of them. After all these years, after being fat-adapted, my body… Read more »
Lsf
Lsf
7 months 2 days ago
Is there anything known about fermenting lentils? Always wanted to know but couldn’t find very much about it. I have brown lentils rather regularly (pressure cooking a big pot of meat (bones, tendons…), vegetables and lentils is a rather cost and time effective way to have food for a week), and soak (24 hours), sprout (several days) and than lacto-ferment (2-3 days, depending on weather) them before cooking, hoping to get them as “good” as possible. So, it’s good to hear that they’re somewhat mark-approved, because that’s what I thought after doing my own “research”. By the way: Natto is… Read more »
Amrita
Amrita
6 months 20 days ago

There are several South Indian dishes that ferment lentils along with rice. Idli, Dosa, etc.

K L
K L
7 months 2 days ago

They are something that I have never given up completely. Hummus with carrots is excellent and gets the kids to eat them. My MIL is Mexican and taught me to make excellent pinto beans. Pinto beans are known for great iron, my MIL says they used to feed infants the water from boiled/ cooked pintos in Mexico (1960-70s) for the iron. Anyways, I love them and have them every couple of weeks, though not daily or anything. We are having them tonight with grilled chicken legs.

Blaine Harvey
Blaine Harvey
7 months 2 days ago
Another excellen article. You are the only one I have read other than Dr. D’Adamo who has drilled down to the issue of lectins and their sometimes deleterious effect. He has done extensive research into the agglutination effect of lectins according to blood type. Blood type 0 which thrives on the Paleo diet for the most part do not do well on most beans legumes. Lentils and kidney beans a case in point. Type A blood do well on pretty well most beans and legumes. On his website under food lists you can find which beans and legumes don’t suit… Read more »
Tanya E
Tanya E
7 months 22 hours ago

Beans definitely put me in the upset my gut category, along with corn. I know if I’ve eaten them. I will occasionally eat hummus or dahl (which are delicious). I ate a lot of beans and wholegrains when I was vegetarian and suffered lots of bloat. If they work for you, great.

George Henderson
6 months 20 days ago

Legume fatty acid ratios are high ALA, lower LA compared to grains.
Soak beans and lentils and discard the water, rinse, cook, and rinse again 1/2 way through cooking – this will remove almost all the FODMAPs and lectins but leave almost all the resistant starch.
If using tinned beans, rinse well before eating.

Becky Davis
6 months 18 days ago

And saponins? I’m not paranoid about eating beans but I do avoid them. They don’t offer anything I can’t get elsewhere and I can’t say I’ve ever craved a lentil or bean dish.

Towania
Towania
6 months 18 days ago

This is definitely a shift from past primal and paleo recommendations. I can tolerate occasional servings of legumes but prefer to avoid lectins and phytic acid where possible. Soaking and sprouting is too much work just to make them ‘safe’ to eat. Also, just too many carbs if on a low carb plan, ie, ketogenic, lchf. I have never really enjoyed beans so I definitely did not miss them when I went primal. I think I’ll keep them on the no list.

Tim
6 months 12 days ago

Excellent article and a good reminder of how our gut bugs can benefit from beans. Anything that can help our microbiome is a good thing.

Two “hopefully” constructive criticisms:

1. A little note about how to properly soak the beans would be really helpful.

2. Was this really written by Mark? I’m surprised you say to mix beans with “Soy” sauce as I’m pretty sure ALL soy sauce contains Gluten. Change “Soy” to “Tamari” sauce and we now have a Primal compliant meal right?

JEANMARIE TODD
JEANMARIE TODD
4 months 20 days ago
No, not all soy sauce contains gluten. Just read the label. Tamari may indeed be better. There was information about soaking beans above, but to reiterate: soak beans with 3 parts fresh water to 1 part beans, overnight at least. Discard the water, rinse the beans, and cook in fresh water. Some people change the water again halfway through cooking; I’ve never bothered. A pressure cooker is an excellent way to cook beans. Also, Cook’s Illustrated tested various methods of soaking beans, and their recommendation for beans that stay whole instead of cracking open and falling apart is to soak… Read more »
JEANMARIE TODD
JEANMARIE TODD
4 months 20 days ago

A note about pressure-cooking beans: since they can foam up and clog the vent of a pressure cooker, most manufacturers and cookbooks recommend that you add some oil to the pot, and don’t overfill it. Check the owner’s manual for specifics.

Enaid
Enaid
6 months 4 days ago

I love beans, always have. When I first went primal (almost 10 yrs ago), I eliminated them. I did fine, but missed homemade hummus, black beans in my chili, etc. I eventually added them back on an infrequent basis. I like lentils for thickening a veggie soup (made with homemade bone broth, of course). I do have to be careful of portion size, as low carb works best for my weight control. I have always suspected the info above, so I’m glad Mark has addressed this and confirmed my suspicions!

MaggieT
MaggieT
6 months 1 day ago

I’ve read so many articles about beans and longevity, and in cited studies the correlation is statistically significant, I strongly feel I should include much more them. But, alas, with trying to stay true paleo or low carb, the struggle is real….

MaggieT
MaggieT
6 months 1 day ago
Coccinelle
Coccinelle
4 months 2 days ago

I’m still too scare to try it. I think it may be bad for my leaky gut.

Genevia @ Every Nutrient
1 month 17 days ago

I am a person who likes a bit of chickpea and lentils in my salad. It is important to notice that this topic is debatable like any aspect of nutrition. Loved the fact that you have maintained a very balanced approach.

Lila
Lila
21 days 1 hour ago

I am a huge fan of Ethiopian food which uses plenty of lentils and legumes….it’s absolutely my favorite refeed food!

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