Chickpeas benefits include better digestion, a substantial amount of plant-based protein and great versatility from a culinary perspective, but they're a little hard to categorize: Are they vegetables or are they a meat alternative? Could they count as a source of carbs?
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Chickpeas are a functional food, and if you haven't already included them in your diet, get ready to understand why you should. These plain-looking little beans have much to offer.
What Is a Chickpea?
Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas likely originated in ancient Egypt and Levant and are today grown primarily in India. You can impress your friends by saying "chickpeas" in Hindi: "chane."
Chickpeas flourish in climates that are tropical, subtropical and temperate, and can be prepared in several different ways. They are the main ingredient in many recipes in the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eastern cuisines, such as hummus, falafel, dhal and chana masala.
These small beans pack a hefty nutritional punch. A half-cup serving (raw) has 140 calories, 7 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of fat. They are a good source of B vitamins, especially folate, or vitamin B9.
These legumes also contain minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Rich in protein, they can be a delicious alternative to meat, dairy and other animal foods. However, the nutritional profile gives one only a basic understanding of chickpeas and their cumulative benefits to your health.
Chickpeas for Good Health
Because of the nutrients they offer, chickpeas could count as servings from a few different food groups, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They could be considered vegetables because of their high fiber and their array of vitamins and minerals. They also have lots of protein as well as iron and zinc, so they make a great meat/poultry alternative for vegetarians.
The National Institute on Aging even offers some tips on whether to count them as a serving of vegetables or protein. People who eat an omnivorous diet (who regularly consume meat) can count legumes as a vegetable. For those who eat a plant-based diet, beans can help them meet their protein requirements.
One of the benefits of consuming protein from plant sources like chickpeas is that they have none of the saturated fat or cholesterol found in meat, but they contain lots of fiber and other nutrients. The quality of protein in chickpeas is better than that of the protein found in other pulses, according to an August 2012 review published in the British Journal of Nutrition, and they provide every amino acid except for the sulfur-containing ones.
Chickpeas can also help you maintain a healthy weight because their high-fiber content promotes satiety, making it easier to reduce your food intake. They can also be good for your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Varying your protein intake with a plant source like chickpeas is smart because people who consume more plant foods and less meat tend to have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure. In general, they are leaner and face a decreased risk of type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer, reports the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Chickpea dishes, such as hummus, are staples in the Mediterranean diet, which the American Academy of Family Physicians notes is good for heart health because of its emphasis on fish, fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains. When combined with exercise, a Mediterranean-style diet may help with weight control while keeping your blood pressure and blood sugar levels within normal limits.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also hails the Mediterranean diet as healthy because of the way it encourages people to get protein from legumes instead of meat and poultry.
Chickpeas as a Carb Alternative
Chickpeas can also serve as a source of complex carbs in place of other grains or grain foods. According to a December 2017 study published in Nutrition Reviews and funded by the American Pulse Association and Pulse Canada, legumes like chickpeas are nutritionally superior to other staple crops, such as rice or corn.
Researchers note that when chickpeas are compared to rice or corn per half-cup serving, they have around 8 grams of protein, while rice or corn has only 2 and 3 grams, respectively. Chickpeas re also higher in folate and iron.
This doesn't mean you have to cut out something like rice entirely. Just add chickpeas to the mix to give your diet a nutritional boost. This can be seen in an October 2017 small study published in Nutrients, which examined the body's glycemic response when black beans or chickpeas were included as part of a rice meal.
In the study, 12 women consumed 50 grams of carbohydrates from three test meals: one with rice, one with black beans and one with rice and chickpeas. The combination of legumes with rice improved glycemic response in the test subjects, indicating that it may have a positive effect on blood sugar control.
Combining chickpeas with a whole grain like brown rice or whole-wheat bread is beneficial not only because it adjusts the body's glycemic response, but also because combining legumes and grains offers all the essential amino acids, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
A couple of options for following this dietary advice would be a bowl of chickpeas and brown rice, or a piece of whole-wheat pita bread served with hummus or falafel.
Chickpeas can also be used to make flour that works as a substitute for wheat flour in a variety of forms, including pasta, while still retaining the nutritional benefits they have in bean form. In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a memorandum elaborating on this.
According to the memo, a half-cup of cooked pasta made from 100 percent vegetable or legume flour could count as a serving of vegetables. In the case of pasta made from legume flour, when paired with a meat or meat alternative (such as tofu or cheese), it could be considered a protein.
If you're combining chickpea flour and regular wheat flour the next time you make a freshly baked bread product, you might enjoy more benefits than simply boosting the fiber and protein content.
For example, an October 2015 research paper published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition has found that chickpeas may help reduce the content of acrylamide in other foods. Acrylamide is a dangerous chemical formed by naturally present sugars and amino acids when exposed to a high-temperature cooking process.
Best Ways to Cook Chickpeas
If you're working with raw chickpeas, soaking and simmering them is the best way to prepare them for inclusion in your favorite chickpeas recipes. This improves their nutritional profile and helps prevent gassy side effects — perhaps the only drawback chickpeas have.
Although chickpeas have many great health benefits, the addition of any legumes to your diet could cause some excess gas. Harvard Health recommends combating this by introducing legumes into your diet slowly and drinking plenty of water. This will help your digestive system adapt to your new fiber intake.
The way you prepare chickpeas can affect how they are digested. Further advice from Harvard includes washing and soaking pre-cooked beans for at least two hours before rinsing them, changing the water and boiling them. Nonprescription enzymes like alpha-galactosidase can help break down gas-causing carbohydrates.
This might be because soaking and cooking the chickpeas concentrates the fibers, according to a study published in June 2013 in the Journal of Food Science and Technology. Don't let it fool you into thinking that the chickpeas make you less gassy, though. When the fibers are concentrated via the boiling method, it enhances the health benefits of chickpeas.
When boiling these legumes, calories don't change, but some of the nutrients do. Protein concentrations increase during the cooking process, whatever method is used. There are slight losses in B vitamins and minerals, but these were seen at a slightly smaller degree when microwaving was used.
Finding Chickpeas Recipes
Now that you understand their health benefits and how to cook the raw beans, you'll naturally want to incorporate chickpeas into your culinary repertoire. Start by tackling the easiest chickpea recipe there is: hummus. You'll impress your guests the next time you put out a bowl of the homemade stuff instead of a commercially prepared version.
All you need is to combine one can of chickpeas (drained) with two tablespoons of tahini, two tablespoons of olive oil, two tablespoons of lemon juice and a clove of minced garlic. Pulse in your blender or food processor until smooth.
Note that the Mayo Clinic encourages using canned beans if regular beans give you gas. The canning process breaks down some of the carbs in these legumes and makes them more easily digestible. So even if you like to prepare everything from its raw version, chickpeas might be a good exception to that rule.
Add a bit of cold water until you get a smooth consistency, and adjust the ingredients to suit your taste. It takes only a few minutes, but the result is a fresher, tastier hummus than you've ever bought from the store.
Now it's time to get creative and try out additions like roasted red peppers, black olives, fresh basil, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes or other favorite vegetables. Hummus can make a stellar dip for crudité or crackers, a substitute for mayonnaise on sandwiches or in potato salad, and even a sauce on pasta.
Once you've mastered making hummus, check your favorite cookbooks or food blogs for chickpea recipes. The Mayo Clinic has some great ideas for incorporating chickpeas into gazpacho, which adds fiber to a traditional Spanish dish, or for polenta made from chickpea flour instead of cornmeal.
Read more: 9 Healthy Hummus Dips Worth Making Yourself
With fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, chickpeas have a lot to offer. However, their greatest benefit just might be their versatility and the ease with which you can prepare them. Be sure to add chickpeas to your shopping list so you can make them a part of an upcoming meal plan — or, ideally, several meals.
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