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Pulses and diabetes

As a nation, we buy 1.5 million tins of baked beans every week from a well-known food manufacturer and there can’t be many of us who’ve never known the simple pleasure of eating beans on toast!

Beans are a type of pulse, a term which also includes lentils and peas. A pulse is an edible seed that grows in a pod. The bean that’s used in baked beans is usually the haricot bean.

Pulses have many health benefits and it’s so easy to get more of them in your meals – and they’re cheap, too.

What pulses are available?

In addition to the humble baked bean, there are many other beans, lentils and peas out there. If you take a quick look in your local supermarket or type in ‘pulses’ when you do your online shop, you will see there are many different types available:

  • aduki beans
  • black-eyed beans
  • black turtle beans
  • borlotti beans
  • broad beans
  • butter beans
  • cannellini bean
  • chickpeas
  • flageolet beans
  • garden peas
  • kidney beans
  • lentils – green, red split, puy
  • pinto beans

Seven reasons to eat more pulses

1. They have a low glycaemic index (GI)

Even though pulses contain carbohydrates, they don’t give sharp rises to blood glucose levels compared to other carbohydrate-containing foods. The make-up of the carbohydrates in pulses, the fibre content and the fact that they are high in protein slows down the breakdown of the carbohydrates into glucose in the blood. Therefore, people with diabetes often find it doesn’t cause big spikes in their glucose levels, especially if the portions are not too big. For this reason, many people with diabetes who carb count are often advised not to count the carbohydrate in pulses, unless eaten in bigger quantities or they are part of a carbohydrate-containing pre-packed food which makes it difficult to isolate the carb from pulses. It is important to check with your diabetes team for specific advice on how to count the carbs in pulses as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

2. They count towards your five a day

Three tablespoons of pulses (about 80g) count as one serving of fruit and vegetables. Great news if you find it hard to meet your five-a-day target. However, no matter how much you eat, it still only counts as one of your five a day because while pulses contain fibre they do not provide the vitamins and minerals you would get from fruit and vegetables.

3. They are a source of protein

Pulses are a good source of protein, essential for building and replacing muscle. If you are vegetarian, they’re a useful way of getting protein in your diet, which non-veggies would get from meat and fish. For non-veggies, pulses are great alternatives that may help you to reduce your meat intake.

4. They are a good source of fibre

Pulses are an excellent source of fibre, essential to keep your digestive system healthy. There are two types of fibre – soluble and insoluble. Pulses are a good source of soluble fibre, which may help to lower your cholesterol levels – good news for your heart health, as high cholesterol levels are a risk factor for heart disease. Research also shows that people who have a good fibre intake have lower rates of conditions such as bowel cancer.

5. They are filling

The fibre and protein in pulses makes them a very filling food, which is good news if you are watching your weight or trying to snack less in between meals.

6. They are low in fat

Most pulses are low in fat, which is great news for your heart and your weight as fat contains more energy gram for gram compared to carbohydrate, protein and alcohol. It is important to watch how you prepare your pulses to ensure that there isn't much added fat, especially if you are watching your waistline.

7. They are cheap

If the health benefits are not enough to tempt you to pop a few pulses in your basket, then maybe knowing they are so cheap will! Most tins and packets of pulses are less than a pound, with many being even cheaper. To make your money go even further, as they are such a good source of protein, you can use them to replace some – or all – of the meat in a recipe. In doing so, you save money, cut the fat and calorie content and bump up the fibre intake and make your meal go further.

Pulses Q&A

How do I cook pulses?

  • Pulses can be bought tinned or dried – both are easy to use. Tinned pulses have already been soaked and cooked, so just heat them or add straight to salads cold from the tin, after draining.
  • Dried pulses need a little more preparation. With the exception of lentils and split peas, dried pulses need to be soaked in cold water before cooking.
  • Cooking times vary depending on the type of pulses and how old they are, so follow the instructions on the packet or recipe.
  • Dried kidney and soya beans contain toxins, so it’s important to make sure that they have been cooked properly, to destroy the toxin, before you eat them.
  • Soak the kidney and soya beans in water for at least 12 hours. Drain and rinse and cover in cold water. In the case of kidney beans, boil vigorously for at least 10 minutes, then simmer for around 45–60 minutes to make them tender. Soya beans need to be boiled vigorously for even longer – one hour – then simmered for about 2–3 hours, until they are tender.

How do I store cooked pulses?

Cool leftover pulses as quickly as possible and put in the fridge or freezer. As with all cooked foods, don’t leave cooked pulses at room temperature for more than an hour or two as bacteria will start to form. If stored in the fridge, eat within two days. Follow your freezer manufacturer’s guidance on how long your frozen pulses can be kept.

How do I buy pulses?

Most people buy tinned pulses to avoid the lengthy cooking and preparation needed for dried pulses. When buying tinned pulses, try to buy them in water and not sugar or salt. Even if you drain the water, some of the salt and sugar will remain.

Similarly, pulses tinned in sauces contain considerably more salt and sugar, as well as being more expensive.

Comparing the beans: red kidney beans

We compared 100g serving of red kidney beans in water with 100g serving of kidney beans in chilli sauce and a 100g serving of baked beans with 100g serving of reduced salt and sugar baked beans. The results show how small changes can help.

100g serving kidney beans in watervs100g serving kidney beans in chilli sauce
6.9g protein5.3g protein
17.8 g carbs (3.6g sugars)14.2g carbs (4.2g sugars)
0.6g fat (0.1g saturates)0.5g fat (0.1g saturates)
0.1g salt 0.6g salt


The kidney beans in chilli sauce contain more salt and sugar, and costs 10p more than the kidney beans in water. So, make your own sauces and add your own spices, such as chilli flakes, pepper, oregano and garlic, to your taste.

Comparing the beans: baked beans

How would 100g standard baked beans compare to their reduced sugar and salt counterparts?

100g serving baked beansvs100g serving reduced salt and fat beans
78 Kcal73Kcal
4.7g protein4.7g protein
12.5g carbs (4.7g sugars)11.4g carbs (3.3g sugars)
0.2g fat (trace of saturates)0.2g fat (trace of saturates)
0.6g salt 0.4g salt


The tin of reduced-sugar and -salt beans win. They are lower on every count. They are the same price, but the health benefits mean they come out on top.

Not so healthy beans...

Try to get into the habit of reading food labels – some products are not as healthy as you might think. For example, a tin of mixed bean salad in vinaigrette might seem like a healthy choice, but on reading the label you’ll realise it contains added sugar and salt.

Recipes for you to try:

Enjoy Food's recipe finder has lots of recipes containing pulses. Why not check out these for starters?

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