Replacing some red and processed meat with pea and fava bean (also called faba or broad beans) products is a nutritionally safe option to make diets more sustainable, according to a study by researchers at the University of Helsinki.
The BeanMan study substituted the legumes for a proportion of red and processed meat in the diets of one group of Finnish men for six weeks, while another group ate 760 grams of meat per week, the average consumed in Finland. The diet of the first group aligned with the upper limit of 200 grams of meat per week recommended in the Planetary Health Diet.
The researchers detected no differences between the two groups in bone formation or amino acid intake in the men, who were healthy and aged between 20 and 65 years. Calcium and vitamin D intake was also the same across both groups and well within prevailing dietary recommendations.
“Reducing red meat consumption is extremely important in terms of environmental impact,” said lead author Suvi T. Itkonen, a researcher in the Department of Food and Nutrition at the University of Helsinki. To achieve this, she said that “increasing the consumption of legumes cultivated in Finland, such as peas and faba beans, is safe from the perspective of protein nutrition.”
Itkonen noted that the participants in the BeanMan study were continuing to consume dairy products which were part of the ordinary diets, leaving their calcium and vitamin D intakes unchanged. But she explained plant-based dairy alternatives fortified with those nutrients, as well as supplements where necessary, can be substituted to maintain bone health.
Lower environmental impact
Red meat has the highest environmental impact of any foods, with beef and lamb being the most resource – and emissions – intensive. By comparison, peas require a fraction of the water and land of beef production. Climate scientists have called for a shift to plant-based diets, particularly in the Global North, to help cut deforestation for grazing pasture and emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Researchers have identified growing more legumes for human consumption as a “cornerstone” of a sustainable food transition in Europe. Legumes can lower emissions from agriculture as they release five to seven times less greenhouse gases than other crops, sequester carbon in the soil, and improve soil fertility, reducing the need for external inputs like fertilizer.
Other health benefits
Aside from providing comparable protein to red meat, beans have a range of other health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends eating more beans and less meat to help improve blood cholesterol and to reduce overeating, since beans can make you feel fuller for longer.
As a great source of fiber, legumes have been linked to a lower risk of developing colorectal cancer and helping with controlling weight.
In 2016, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared the International Year of Pulses to promote the contribution that foods like peas and lentils can make to combating hunger and malnutrition.