Can pulses help you lose weight?

The United Nations designated 2016 the International Year of Pulses. The goal is to increase awareness, demand and intake of this plant food, as “in many countries, consumer, food industry members, and governments have little knowledge of pulses, their attributes, or their ability to contribute to the solution of many food related issues facing the world today.”

The global epidemic of obesity is a major health threat. Could pulses offer a remedy for this important nutrition issue? Pulses -- edible seeds that grow in pods, including beans, lentils, chickpeas and dried peas -- have lots of fiber and protein, a low glycemic index, and one could imagine that these traits are beneficial to weight loss. A new study, led by Shana Kim and appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition set out to see if in practice, people who eat pulses actually lose weight.

The researchers found 21 randomized clinical trials in which 940 participants were assigned a diet that either included pulses or served as a control – with no pulses. In all cases the pulse diet and the control were matched in caloric intake, and the diets lasted a median of 6 weeks.

Those eating one serving of pulses a day lost 0.34 kg (¾ of a pound) when compared to the people on the no-pulses diets – this on a diet that was identical in calories. Even in trials that were designed for weight maintenance, and in which the participants weren’t calorie restricted, the pulse eaters lost weight. Although it’s not a lot of weight loss, one can imagine that if this trend is sustained over a year that could mean 3kg, or about 6½ pounds lost in a year through a no-deprivation, easy step that involves substituting some of the grain and starches in the diet with beans, lentils and hummus. 

Is a calorie not a calorie?

What could explain pulses’ weight loss effect? Is a calorie not a calorie? The authors offer a few possible explanations. Pulses may cause greater satiety. In fact, they quote a study that shows that there is a 31 percent increase in reported satiety after meals that contain pulses. This might lead to better adherence to a diet regimen.

The other mechanism they offer is that not all foods are absorbed the same. Foods that are high in fiber might reduce the absorption of fat in the diet, and the tough cell walls of some pulses might also not allow absorption of all their starches. If this is the case the quoted caloric content of the pulses doesn’t reflect what the body gets out of them, as some of their energy isn’t utilized because the digestive enzymes don’t break them down completely.

There are many reasons to add pulses to your meals. They are tasty, versatile, inexpensive, and sustainable. If they can help with weight maintenance this would be the cherry on top.

Dr. Ayala

Looking for recipes that incorporate pulses? Here are a few of my favorites:

Red lentil and spinach soup

Tofu, kale and black bean burritos

Edamame dumplings in vegetable and white truffle broth

Homemade hummus

There are many reasons to add pulses to your meals. They are tasty, versatile, inexpensive, and sustainable.