What’s the deal with legumes?

I live in Spain where one of the traditional dishes is a simple lentil soup with vegetables and meat. It’s nothing too fancy, but it’s a very savory and nourishing dish. The typical Spanish way of cooking lentils usually includes a bit of “chorizo”, a kind of cured meat which adds a very special taste. It might also be a small trick parents use to get their children to eat vegetables. In Spain, people have traditionally eaten other kinds of legumes, such as chickpeas and beans.

Legumes are a staple in the diet of many Mediterranean cultures. Lentils, chickpeas and fava beans originally came from regions in the middle east, whereas the common bean, scientifically called Phaseolus vulgaris, was originally cultivated in Central America. From there, it spread north and south, becoming a staple in the diet of many indigenous cultures of the Americas. Different types of common bean include kidney beans, pinto beans and navy beans. Of course, there are also well know types of Asian beans such as mung, soy and adzuki beans.

Recently I’ve been learning about blue zones, small areas on the planet where people tend to live exceptionally long lives. There’s a few all over the world which experts on longevity have identified, such as the island of Sardinia, the peninsula of Nicoya in Costa Rica, and the islands of Okinawa, Japan. One of the things I’ve found interesting is that legumes are one of the fundamental foods in the diet of these cultures.

I wanted to investigate a little more on the nutritional benefits of legumes, so here it goes!

Benefits of legumes

Legumes are widely considered a healthy and nutritious food. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends about three cups a week . Also, the DASH eating plan of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends about four or five half-cup servings a week.

In a nutshell legumes are a great and inexpensive nutrient dense food, containing protein, vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber. Two important vitamins many legumes have are vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and vitamin B9 (Folate). They are also rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

1. Legumes are satiating (and they can help you lose weight)

Eating legumes makes you feel satiated and this can prevent unhealthy snacking. The fiber in legumes slows down digestion, and this may contribute to the feelings of fullness.

All legumes are considered “slow carbs”, which means they are digested slowly and glucose enters the blood at a steadier pace. Instead of getting a spike of energy, as with white pasta or rice, “slow carbs” sustain you for a longer period of time.

All legumes have a low glycemic index, which measures how quickly the body digests carbohydrates (and how much a particular food affects blood sugar). Lentils, for example, have a low glycemic index of 22 on a scale of 100. Anything below 55 is considered a “slow carb”. Because of this, and the fact that they are low in calories, some nutritionists believe legumes and specially lentils are a good choice for losing weight.

2. They promote digestive health

Not all starches are rapidly digested and turned into glucose in the small intestine. There is also “resistant starch”, which was discovered in the 1980’s by two English researchers. Resistant starch passes into the large intestine where it is used as food by healthy bacteria. Surprisingly, almost half the starches in legumes are resistant starches.

Legumes also contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber can’t be digested by the body and the gut bacteria can’t brake it down either. It acts as a bulking agent and it reduces constipation. Soluble fiber is broken down by the gastrointestinal fluid, producing a liquid which is then used by gut bacteria. Much of the fluid is converted by bacteria into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are essential for the health of cells lining the colon.

3. Legumes will help your cardiovascular system

Fiber can also help your cardiovascular system. Researchers believe that fiber binds with certain cholesterol molecules and eliminates them from the body. A meta-analysis of 11 clinical trials found that legumes lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 6% and increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol by 2.6%.

Even more important, legumes are packed with minerals that take care of the cardiovascular system. For example, magnesium and potassium help regulate blood pressure and electrical nerve impulses. Legumes also contain vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid) which, together with vitamins B6 and B12, neutralize harmful homocysteine molecules. A high level of homocysteine molecules is associated with risk of heart disease.

A cohort study which used data from about 9500 people found out that after 19 years, those that consumed legumes 4 times or more a week had 22% less risk of heart disease and 11% less risk of heart attack or stroke.

4. They may help prevent diabetes type 2 and regulate blood sugar

The American Diabetes Association recommends eating beans several times a week. A 2015 report by Rani Polak, from the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, says:

“A diet rich in plant-based foods, including legumes, and lower in refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed meats has been shown to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, for those who have diabetes, to improve both glycemic and lipid control”

In the report, they cite a couple of studies where legumes were effective in lowering blood sugar levels. However, in an article from Harvard School of Public health, they say it’s not completely clear weather legumes can help prevent diabetes type 2 or lower blood glucose. They cite an older study from 2000, where no difference was noticed in women who ate a lot of legumes and women who ate few.

A couple of bonus ideas

Big epidemiologic studies can give us an idea of the benefits of a certain food. However, only you know what is best for your body, and that can only be learned with experience. If you usually don’t eat legumes, try including some and see how you feel. Everyone’s body responds in a slightly different way to different foods!

That being said, legumes are a very inexpensive source of nutrients. There are a couple of curious things to keep in mind when it comes to legumes.

A) Combine them with rice for a whole protein

Amino acids are what proteins are made of, and each protein in your body is made of 20 amino acids. 11 of those are produced by the body, but the other 9 your body can’t make, and you must get them from food. The combination of rice and beans is called a whole protein because it provides those other 9 essential amino acids.

Other types of complete proteins are eggs, fish, chicken, beef, pork, dairy and whole sources of soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh, miso)

Combine beans with brown rice for an extra nutritious meal. Brown rice has more fiber and nutrients than white rice. Here’s a simple and tasty recipe.

B) The “soaking” question

Traditionally people soaked beans before cooking to make them more digestible and increase nutrient absorption.

The argument for soaking: legumes contain phytic acid which is considered an anti-nutrient. Soaking them basically gets rid of the phytic acid. The idea is that phytic acid can cause loss of mineral absorption (especially iron and zinc) and also damage the intestinal tract.

However, Dr. Alan Christianson believes there is evidence proving phytic acid can have positive effects. He says there’s been large population studies which show that phytic acid cuts the risk of various types of cancer. In addition, it works as a detoxifier of heavy metals and can lower the risk of diabetes.

He’s arguments on the article that I linked (click on his name) are pretty convincing. However, I wouldn’t completely ignore the fact that traditionally many cultures have soaked beans before cooking them.

So, we’ve got a bit of a problem here haven’t we? I have stopped getting frustrated reading about nutrition. There are so many theories reading studies on food can feel like falling through an endless rabbit hole.

My recommendation: experiment with soaking, but don’t worry too much about it. Find the way you prefer cooking and eating beans the most. For some people soaking makes beans less tasty, so they skip it. Sometimes I just want a quick nutritious meal, and canned beans come in handy.

What can honey do for you?

Until recently I didn’t give honey much importance and I didn’t know much about it. I grew up and currently live in Spain, but when I was a kid my family and I would spend some time at my grandmother’s house in Ohio, where my father is from. When we were sick my grandmother used to give me and my brothers apple cider vinegar and honey as a remedy, so I was aware on some level of its health benefits.

About a year ago I was walking back home and I saw a man from outside Barcelona who was selling jars of honey on the street. I saw some kinds I had never tried, such as oak and heather honey, so I bought a couple. I was intrigued by the beautiful dark colors. One of them was crystallized, which I thought was strange at first, but later learned that it only happens to very good and natural honey. Natural raw honey will crystallize over time because the percentage of carbohydrates is much higher than that of water. It does not damage the honey in any way. When I tried them at home I absolutely loved them and I bought other kinds, such as thyme and rosemary honey. Now I use honey almost everyday, either in my oatmeal or a hot beverage.

What is honey?

Honey is a substance made by bees from the nectar of flowers and plants. Many kinds of bees make honey, but only one species, the Apis Mellifera, lives in big enough colonies that can make enough honey for humans to profit from.

The way this works is that plants require pollination to reproduce. To do this they need to exchange their pollen with other plants of the same species. Some plants rely on the wind for this purpose, but others use pollinators such as bees to carry their pollen around. To attract pollinators, plants offer nectar. Bees suck the nectar and put into a pouch they have in their bodies, separate from their stomach. And long story short, this nectar will be refined by the bees into honey.

Honey is one of the wonders of nature. Think about all the work that goes into a jar of honey. Even though the main two substances in honey are sugar and water, studies have found up to 180 different compounds in honey, such as amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and antioxidants. Scientists have also discovered that honeybees work as a kind of superorganism. Every single bee is always doing something for the hive, either collecting nectar, defending the hive or feeding their larvae. A honeybee will have a life of around 40 days, and 30 of those will be spent collecting nectar from hundreds of flowers, in addition to resinous sap and pollen.

Honey and its health properties

Honey has been used by humans for a very long time. There is an interesting cave painting in Spain dating back about 8000 years, which depicts a woman carrying a basket or gourd, climbing on to a tree with what seem to be ropes or maybe a ladder, and gathering honey from hive. Close to the middle east, in Georgia, archaeologists have found remains of honey on clay vessels in an ancient tomb dating back around 5000 years.

In ancient Egypt it was used for religious and medicinal practices, as well as in cooking to sweeten cakes and biscuits. In the Smith papyrus, one of the oldest Egyptian medical texts dating back around 2600 and 2200 BC, the recipe for a basic wound salve is made from a mixture of grease, honey and fiber. In ancient Greece honey was also held in high esteem for its medicinal uses. The Greek physician Hippocrates often used honey as part of his prescriptions for a variety of troubles. And in the Indian ayurvedic tradition, honey is seen to possess many therapeutic qualities as well. To sum up, honey has a long history of therapeutic use in many cultures around the world.

In the past decades researchers have been inquiring a bit into the healing qualities of this sticky substance. The most important quality of honey scientists have discovered is its antibacterial activity. In one of my favorite cook books, The longevity Kitchen by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson, they say “honey’s reputation for fighting infection is so robust that some hospitals use it to combat staph bacteria in their wards”. This is why grandmas have been giving honey as a cure for sore throats for centuries. Just recently in 2020, a study from the university of Oxford proved that honey is more effective in treating “upper respiratory tract infections”, like coughs and sore throats, than antibiotics or over-the- counter medicines. In addition to its antibacterial properties, there is evidence of its antiviral and anti-inflamatory properties.

Partly because of it’s antibacterial activity, honey is one of the oldest wound-healing substances known to man. Some researchers have been looking into this and have confirmed that honey can help heal acute wounds and mild skin burns. It not only helps clean the wound, but it also accelerates the regeneration of tissue. However, from what I’ve learned most doctors and researchers believe a larger body of evidence is needed. Further research into honey might take a while. Since it’s not something that can be patented by pharmaceutical companies, there isn’t a lot of incentive to investigate.

What is certain is that when you have a cough or a sore throat, honey will help your body recover. But you don’t need to wait until you get sick, including honey as part of your routine will strengthen your immune system. I like to have it almost everyday because I find it absolutely delicious. As with everything, don’t over do it, honey is still mostly made of sugar and water, even though it is much healthier than artificial sweeteners.

How to find great natural honey

Finding great honey is quite simple. You can do an online search for natural unprocessed honey in your area and see who is making it. Another way would be to go to your local farmer’s market and see if anybody is selling honey. Most likely someone will. The honey I’m using now is from a family run business north of Barcelona. I met them at one of the Sunday markets in my neighborhood.

When we buy everything from big supermarkets, we don’t really know how and where anything has been produced. Of course, there are certain standards and rules, so we see a product comes from such and such a place, or if it’s marked as organic we have some idea about how it has been produced. But we really don’t have any connection to the food itself. I would say it’s important to have a stronger emotional connection with some of the foods we eat. It adds extra sweetness and joy to our daily lives, and honey is great way to do it! Moreover, it gives you a sense of belonging to your own land and people.

You will notice unprocessed natural honey has a much thicker consistency than the processed one. The thickness of natural honey makes me think of Winnie-the-pooh, and how he would get his hands very sticky and messy or get his head stuck in honey jars all the time.

So make a connection with a local farmer or business and buy natural honey. When you open the jar in the morning, smell the honey and think of all the bees that put in hard work to produce it. A honeybee will produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon during its lifetime. So on average it takes the life of twelve bees to make a single teaspoon. Think of all the flowers they extracted the nectar from, how they had to fly hear and there collecting it. And now you can have it whatever way you like most!

Simple ideas for improving mental health

Today there a plenty of expensive supplements, products and trends to improve mental health, but what simple, free and effective things can we do?

Any kind of mental health issue can be complex and usually it requires that we tackle it from a variety of angles. However, sometimes the simplest things are very powerful and beneficial for our health.

These tips are easy to implement, which doesn’t mean they will change you in a day. They require a bit of patience and perseverance for them to work. It’s as if you were introducing these subtle but deep changes in your body, and overtime, the benefits add up. These tips will help almost anybody who is willing to work on their well-being. 

Drink your food, chew your water

For years I was told by people “You eat so fast!”, or “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone eat that fast!”. I used to gulp my food down like some kind of prehistoric bird. Chew you food until it melts away in your mouth. The enzymes in your saliva will start breaking down food and your digestive system will have a much easier time absorbing the nutrients that will be carried to the cells in your body.

When you chew your food slowly, your body relaxes, and when you relax your parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which among other things, takes care of digestion.

The nervous system in your body is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response, when it gets activated it drives blood to the extremities so you can put up a good fight or run really fast. It doesn’t really care about digestion at all, its purpose is to keep you alive in a dangerous situation. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system takes care of the rest and repair of the body. It slows down the heart rate and increases digestion.

The problem when we are constantly anxious or stressed is that we sit at the table to eat and we are not relaxed, so our stomach is not “turning on” and the digestive juices are not flowing properly.

Chewing your food is one of the simplest things you can do to improve digestion, which is so essential that an improvement there will have an effect on overall health.

Spend time in nature

This one might seem plain common sense to you, and if it doesn’t, there is growing scientific research that a walk in nature can do wonders for your body and mind. It relaxes you, you produce some vitamin D thanks to the sun, intake much needed fresh air, and walking is a very healthy form of exercise. Think about when you were a kid, didn’t you love running around in the green grass, or playing hide and seek in a forest with your friends? When we are children we intuitively love playing in nature.

One example of the influence of nature on the brain is the effect it has on children with ADHD. A 2004 study by Frances E. Kuo, an associate professor at the university of Illinois, found out playing and doing activities in nature helps reduce the symptoms of kids with ADHD. Her study tracked 452 kids from ages 5 to 18 across different income and geographical backgrounds, as well as across severity of diagnosis.

A much wider study with adults from 2020, conducted by Matthew White of the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, found out that people who spent 2 hours a week in green spaces (parks or natural environments) were more likely to enjoy good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This study tracked 20.000 people and it was done across different occupations, ethnic groups, income backgrounds and health conditions.

Photo Credit: Harry GillenUnsplash

Try to make it a habit to spend time in natural environments almost everyday. Do whatever you can, if you can only spend 15 minutes at a city park, then that’s better than nothing. If near your house there is a small hill or mountain, use it as a way of getting fresh and clean air, in addition to a bit of exercise. If you start including nature as part of your routine, you will notice the benefits pretty soon.

Natural Breathing

We need to breathe to live, right? It’s probably the most important activity of our body but we pay little attention to it. Most people breathe using the muscles in their chest and shoulders. This is actually not a very effective way to breathe.

The way the natural breath works is from the diaphragm. The diaphragm expands slightly making the belly rise. The air comes in filling the lower part of the lungs first and then the rest. According to the Vietnamese Zen monk Thic Nhat Hanh, in ancient times, people spoke of the breath starting at the navel and finishing at the nostrils.

To see what kind of breather you are put a hand on your chest and the other one on your belly or close below the diaphragm. The diaphragm is right under your rib cage, it is actually connected to the bottom of your lungs. Now breathe naturally. What part of your body moves more? Does your chest move or does your belly move? Don’t try to force it, just breathe naturally to see what muscles you are using. If you use the chest and shoulders, you could improve the way you breath.

The reason why this breathing is so good for your mental health is that it relaxes the whole body and nervous system. It creates a kind of wave and subtle movement in your body massaging your internal organs. If you develop a habit of breathing in a relaxed, deep way, you will also bring in much more oxygen and this will make a big difference in how you feel.

Don’t get discouraged, it’s not so easy to change the way we breathe, because the muscles in our chest have become used to our current way of breathing. In many cases, shallow breathing has gone on for so long that the chest and lungs have become smaller. The body will get used to using less air and it will adapt to just getting by. If you practice deep breathing exercises, you should ease into it, without forcing your body. The body is flexible and with time it will adjust to a new kind of movement.

Try to practice natural breathing for 5 or 10 minutes everyday. Simply sit with your back straight or lie down on a mat. Notice how your body and breath feels. Breathe deeply and notice how focusing on your breath slowly relaxes you. Put a hand on the belly and notice how it rises and falls. Try to breathe in a way that your belly is moving a bit, pushed by the movement of the diaphragm.

Photo Credit: Haley PhelpsUnsplash

Practice relaxation

Making time for practicing relaxation can help with all kinds of problems. Today we think we know how to relax but we really don’t. Whenever we have some free time we anxiously reach for our phones or turn on the TV. We are slowly losing the ability to simply do nothing. Try making time for just being with yourself and actually relaxing completely, without distractions. You can do this wherever you want, but a quiet room at home will make it easier at first.

You can lie down on a mat or couch, or make yourself comfortable anyway that you prefer. Breathe easily and gently. Focus gently on your breath going in and out and you will start relaxing. Slowly start by relaxing the arms and legs, then relax the chest and stomach, then shoulders, the neck and the head. This is very simple but very effective, and the more you practice the more you will be able to relax. You will also develop more awareness of your body and you will learn to identify what is going on, what areas are tense, or feel strange.

Relaxing is not being lazy. It’s taking the time to take care of yourself. In fact, try it, after working hard for a couple of hours, lie down and relax for just five minutes. You fill find that you feel more energized and can accomplish more later.

There is one technique which is very useful in creating relaxation. It’s called progressive relaxation. It was developed by a man called Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. You tense muscles in your body and then relax them. This moves blood out and brings it in, it energizes the area and awakens the nerves. Here’s an example you can try at home.