Beans, Lentils, and the Paleo Diet

As we continue to explore the foods our ancestors relied on during our evolutionary history, and what foods work best for us today, we come to legumes such as beans and lentils.  These are controversial foods within the Paleolithic diet community, while the broader nutrition community tends to view legumes as healthy.

Beans and lentils have a lot going for them.  They're one of the few foods that are simultaneously rich in protein and fiber, making them highly satiating and potentially good for the critters in our colon.  They're also relatively nutritious, delivering a hefty dose of vitamins and minerals.  The minerals are partially bound by the anti-nutrient phytic acid, but simply soaking and cooking beans and lentils typically degrades 30-70 percent of it, making the minerals more available for absorption (Food Phytates. Reddy and Sathe. 2002).  Omitting the soaking step greatly reduces the degradation of phytic acid (Food Phytates. Reddy and Sathe. 2002).

The only tangible downside to beans I can think of, from a nutritional standpoint, is that some people have a hard time with the large quantity of fermentable fiber they provide, particularly people who are sensitive to FODMAPs.  Thorough soaking prior to cooking can increase the digestibility of the "musical fruit" by activating the sprouting program and leaching out tannins and indigestible saccharides.  I soak all beans and lentils for 12-24 hours.

The canonical Paleolithic diet approach excludes legumes because they were supposedly not part of our ancestral dietary pattern.  I'm going to argue here that there is good evidence of widespread legume consumption by hunter-gatherers and archaic humans, and that beans and lentils are therefore an "ancestral" food that falls within the Paleo diet rubric.  Many species of edible legumes are common around the globe, including in Africa, and the high calorie and protein content of legume seeds would have made them prime targets for exploitation by ancestral humans after the development of cooking.  Below, I've compiled a few examples of legume consumption by hunter-gatherers and extinct archaic humans.  I didn't have to look very hard to find these, and there are probably many other examples available.  If you know of any, please share them in the comments.

To be clear, I would eat beans and lentils even if they weren't part of ancestral hunter-gatherer diets, because they're inexpensive, nutritious, I like the taste, and they were safely consumed by many traditional agricultural populations probably including my own ancestors.

Extensive "bean" consumption by the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert

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