Why are legumes not considered paleo?
This may be the most often asked question within the paleo diet community. For me, this has always been an easy one to answer. The reason being is I never really cared much for legumes in the first place. I actually prefer the taste of nuts, including almond butter, to peanuts and peanut butter. Even when I thought soy was healthy for me, I still never liked the taste very much. And I tend to forget that beans even exist until I am sitting in a Mexican restaurant scanning the menu deciding what I am going to eat. So when I saw a little bit of research regarding the dangers of legumes, they were a no-brainer to remove from my diet.
But I also realize that this is not the case for everybody. Some people love their peanut butter, crave their daily soy latte, or grew up on rice and beans. They need a little bit more convincing before they decide to go without one of their favorite foods. Hopefully this post provides you with enough information to convince you that legumes are less than optimal in your diet.
What Are Legumes?
Legumes is a funny word.
Now that I got that off my chest let’s look at what foods are actually considered legumes. The main ones we are concerned with are soy, peas, beans, green beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peanuts.
We make an exception for peas and green beans throughout the Superhuman30 because of their ability to be consumed raw and their low levels of toxins. Which leads to our next point.
The Dangers of Legumes.
Most legumes are extremely toxic in their raw state. The Perfect Health Diet reports that raw kidney beans at only 1% of a rat’s diet can kill it in just 2 weeks. Legumes have to be soaked, fermented, or sprouted in order to make them safe to eat. This necessary step of preparation is enough to convince most paleo followers that this is a food we shouldn’t be eating.
The goal of these food preparations is to reduce the lectin and phytate content of legumes. Lectins and phytates are inherent in most foods, but they are especially high in grains and legumes. Lectins have been shown to strip away mucous from the small intestine, which is one of the key causes in many autoimmune diseases. Lectins have also been found guilty of causing symptoms similar to food poisoning, even when no other pathogens were present.
Phytates, specifically phytic acid, have been shown to block the mineral absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Many people believe that this decreased absorption helps to explain Americans high rate of disease and osteoporosis, despite our high level of dairy consumption. Phytates have also been shown to inhibit important enzymes involved in digestion, including pepsin and amylase.
Soy Is Especially Bad.
The Weston A. Price Foundation, which actually advocates the consumption of properly prepared grains and legumes, strongly advocates against large consumptions of soy. This link provides multiple studies that have occurred within the last 75 years documenting the dangers of soy. Here are just a few of the things that were found:
-Soy leads to an increased risk of bladder cancer.
-Soy fed infants have more reproductive and asthma issues as adults.
-Increased consumption of soy-based tofu led to lower cognitive function later in life and a greater incidence of alzheimers.
-One daily cup of soy milk can cut total sperm count in men in half.
It should also be noted that as recently as 2007, 91% of all soybeans grown were genetically modified (GMO) in some way. If you have seen Food Inc., you know that this is largely due to corporate giant Monsanto’s overpowering ability to force small time farmers to use their patented pesticide resistant soybeans. We don’t fully understand the effect of these GMO foods and it’s pretty safe to say that most soy products come from GMO seeds.
Peanuts vs Nuts.
It should first be noted that we don’t advocate consuming large amounts of nuts in general. Peanuts are technically a legume, but I still think the comparison to other nuts is warranted. All nuts are fairly high in lectins (which we vilified earlier in this post), and they are a dense source of calories, including the not-so good Omega 6 fats.
One of the goals of eating paleo is to have a ratio of Omega 6:Omega 3 fats of about 3:1 or below. This is largely due to the inflammatory nature of Omega 6 fats, and the anti-inflammatory nature of Omega 3 fats. They tend to balance each other out. A quick search of the USDA nutrient database shows that ½ cup of Peanuts has 11 grams of Omega 6 fats and just trace amounts of Omega 3 fats. This is not only way above our ideal 3:1 ratio, but it will be almost impossible to consume enough Omega 3 fats to bring this ratio back into balance. Compare this to macadamia nuts, which have less than 1 gram of Omega 6 fats per ½ cup.
Peanuts also contain the highest amount of aflatoxins, which have been shown to increase the risk of cancer, mortality from cancer, as well as stunted growth.
At the very least, it appears that peanuts should be ranked behind all other nuts in terms of their health and toxic load. This is enough for me to remove them from my diet altogether.
Do You Really Need All That Fiber?
The fuss over fiber is a very new concept in our society. It’s one of those concepts that food manufacturers have ran with over the last several years, as they were looking for more ways to sell consumers on the benefits of whole grains and legumes.
The purpose of fiber is to feed the healthy bacteria that lives in our gut, but how much is really necessary for optimal health? One startling fact is that human breast milk contains no fiber at all. If fiber was so necessary to our health, why wouldn’t we require it during our most important developing years?
Another great example is the Inuit group of indigenous people that ate mostly whales, walrus, caribou, seal, and other animals and rarely, if ever consumed any fiber at all. This is the same group of people that have been praised for having almost no heart disease or acne despite a diet relying on 75% fat, most of it from saturated fat.
There was also a study done in 1989 regarding the benefits of high fiber where participants were asked to double their intake of whole grains and fiber. The result was a higher death rate for the high fiber group over the course of the 2-year study although the difference in death rate was not considered significant.
While I do think fiber is an important part of health, the quantities that are required for optimal health have been vastly over-exaggerated by today’s food manufacturers. If you really want to support gut health by eating more fiber, stick to broccoli or blueberries, which both have over 5 grams of fiber per cup.
My Final Verdict.
Once you get past the anti-nutrients and fiber, you’re essentially left with a little bit of protein and lots of carbohydrates. Unlike animal products, the proteins that are found in legumesare not complete proteins, meaning they don’t supply all 9 essential amino acids. If your goal is to increase your protein intake, you are still better off doing it with animal sources.
The nice thing about the carbohydrates found in most legumes, is they don’t spike insulin the way many grain and dairy products do. This is not to say that we need all these extra carbohydrates, they just won’t have the same storage effect as those carbohydrates that elicit a huge insulin response.
Based on the research that I have seen, as well as my own personal experience, I believe that legumes are neither optimal or dangerous for most people. They are simply unnecessary. While wheat and other grains have convinced me that they are nothing but bad news, legumes appear to be a problem for a more select group of people.
The defining factor for me is that there is nothing in legumes that can’t be better provided by lean meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. So while I may have the occasional side of beans at a Mexican restaurant or veggies dipped in hummus as a snack, legumes will never be more than just an occasional source of variety within my diet.
I would caution anybody that has any autoimmune disease or other specific issue that even a small amount of legumes can exacerbate the problem, but I don’t think this is a concern for most.
Just make sure that the legumes you are consuming are in addition to the quality lean meats and vegetables you are eating, not as a replacement for them.