What are Pulses and Why is Everyone Talking About Them?

Meet the New “Multitasking” Food Group That’s Good for You and the Planet

Perhaps you missed the announcement that the 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Or you may have heard it and thought, “What on earth is a pulse?”

Do you love dunking raw vegetables in hummus? How about sipping a hearty bowl of warm lentil or split pea soup? Then you’re already a devotee: Chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are all members of the pulse family.

Allow us to define: A pulse is a dried, edible seed that grows in a pod. It is in the “legume” family, a term referring to the more than 13,000 species of plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. But unlike other legumes, pulses contain seeds that we can eat dry. This includes most varieties of peas, beans, and lentils, and excludes any legumes eaten fresh as vegetables (green peas, green beans, edamame) or used for oil extraction.

That’s why, speaking non-technically, I like to think of pulses as dried seeds.

Pulses are rich in nutritional benefits, but also play a big role in creating a stable food supply and even reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fighting climate change! They are a “multitasking” food group that I highly recommend adding to your diet.


Pulses are special because they are nitrogen-fixing crops. Plants cannot grow without nitrogen, but while most plants rely on nitrogen in the soil to grow, nitrogen-fixing crops pull nitrogen from the air into the soil. Then when the next crop is planted, the more nitrogen-rich soil increases that crop’s yields. Including pulses in crop rotations reduces the risks of soil erosion and depletion, and creates a more stable growing system around the world.

Pulses also benefit the planet because, being rich in protein, they are a healthy meat alternative. This cuts down on the immense food, energy, and water demands of meat production.

Eating less meat also reduces the global greenhouse-gas emissions caused by animal agriculture. Keep in mind that most clearcutting in our bio-rich environments is done for the production of cattle food, not human food or grazing pastures. This practice is harmful to the environment and unsustainable in the long term, so swapping meat for pulses helps to diminish it.

Pulses are also low-maintenance for farmers: They adapt to tough environments, don’t require many fertilizers or pesticides in non-organic farming, require minimal amounts of water, and have a low carbon footprint. Overall, they are a huge win for the environment.


International experts who gathered for the kickoff event of the United Nations’ 2016 International Year of Pulses described pulses an inexpensive source of healthy protein that could help solve the global problem of hunger and malnutrition.

Why? Pulses are cheap, but they contain high amounts of fiber and protein, minerals like iron, zinc, and phosphorous, and folate and other B-vitamins. That much nutritional “bang for your buck” can be very instrumental in battling malnutrition.

One cup of chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans, Bengal gram, or cece) contains an average of 14 g of protein, 12 g of fiber, and 45 g of carbohydrates, along with about 5 mg of iron and 2.5 mg of zinc. (That’s a killer report card.) Chickpeas are the primary ingredient in hummus, which is a convenient addition to any diet. Try my superfood-infused recipe and check out these creative hummus recipes from ALOHA!


Unsurprisingly, Pulses have plenty of long-term health benefits.

They aid weight loss by making you feel full. One study showed one serving of dietary pulses increased fullness by 31 percent, promoting better weight management and, in turn, weight loss.

Studies also show pulses:

  • Are rich in bioactive compounds, including phytochemicals and antioxidants, which may contain anti-cancer properties.
  • Promote bone health.
  • Potentially prevent cognitive decline and reduce menopausal symptoms.
  • Have a low glycemic index, meaning they are broken down slowly and can help fight diabetes and blood sugar-related conditions.
  • Are high in prebiotics (non-digestible ingredients that feed good gut bacteria) for better digestion and overall health. Less than 3% of Americans eat the government-recommended daily amount of fiber; pulses are a great way to increase your intake.
  • May reduce the risks of coronary heart disease. They are high in dietary fiber, which is proven to lower LDL cholesterol, a recognized risk factor in coronary heart disease.
  • Provide pregnant women with important vitamins such as folate, which reduces the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida in newborns.

All this in mind, it’s clear why the UN is devoting a whole year to pulses. It’s time to educate the world on how important this plant family can be in sustainable food production, healthy diets, food security, and quality nutrition. Add them to a varied diet of fresh, whole foods, and enjoy knowing you’re part of a positive (and very satisfying) movement.

Photo credit: iStock