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Benefits of wholegrains and legumes in a plant-based diet

Wholegrains such as oats offer unique nutritional benefits in plant-based diets.
Photo: Paul Jones

Wholegrains and legumes have become essential components within plant-based diets, with both offering unique nutritional benefits.

Wholegrains such as quinoa, oats and brown rice are consumed in their entirety as all three parts of the kernel are intact. Wholegrains offer a high profile of complex carbohydrates and vitamins such as iron, magnesium and B vitamins.

Legumes offer similar properties and are particularly high in fibre, making them a good source of plant-based protein. They include lupins, lentils, chickpeas and beans. Incorporating both wholegrains and legumes into a healthy diet can provide a range of nutrients and health benefits.

Wholegrains and legumes are both high-fibre foods that have protective properties such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Wholegrains and legumes have the ability to:

  • improve digestion by providing healthy bacteria within the gut;
  • regulate blood sugar levels by slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates; and
  • lower cholesterol.

Research has found that women who consistently consume high levels of wholegrains are at a significantly lower risk of developing ischemic stroke in comparison to those consuming the least amount.

Legumes and pulses are often underappreciated. They have a low glycaemic index, causing blood sugar levels to rise at a steadier rate while minimising insulin spikes – both characteristics strongly associated with reducing the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Although plant-based diets are recognised for their health benefits in being high in fibre and vitamins, they are often associated with being lower in protein and iron in comparison to a regular diet.

Wholegrains offer a primary source of protein to plant-based diets and provide appropriate levels of amino acids such as lysine, fibre and numerous B vitamins, especially when combined with legumes.

Consuming a variety of different sources of wholegrains and legumes will ensure all essential amino acids and complete protein requirements are met.

More protein in animal products

It is important to recognise that animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs offer a higher concentration of protein in comparison to plants. However, research has demonstrated that wholegrains and legumes can offer sufficient levels of protein through the combination of different sources throughout the day.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend at least four to six servings of grains per day for Australian adults, with at least two to three of these being wholegrains.

This can be achieved by choosing wholegrain bread for toast in the morning or sandwiches at lunch time, replacing white rice with either brown rice or quinoa, using wholegrains such as barley or quinoa for the base of salads and snacking on rice cakes or wholegrain crackers.

Research also shows that many consumers are unfamiliar with the preparation methods and how to incorporate wholegrains and legumes within their diet and suggests this may be the contributing factor to their low consumption.

However, simple substitutions such as choosing wholegrain bread, snacks, brown rice and wholegrain pasta can effortlessly increase wholegrain consumption without requiring any new preparation techniques.

When it comes to incorporating legumes into the diet, affordability, time and unfamiliarity are often challenges limiting consumption. However, overcoming these barriers can easily be achieved by buying tinned legumes, offering a cost-effective and convenient option that can be added to salads, soups and curries with minimal preparation.

Overall, wholegrains and legumes are essential for maintaining a healthy and well-balanced plant-based diet because of their ability to provide fibre, protein, vitamins and versatility. The incorporation of wholegrains and legumes not only supports overall health but can also assist in reducing the risk of a chronic diseases.

More information: Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council.

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