Pulses and the link between nutrition and health

Nutrition is one of the most important contributors to human health. In addition to managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, a healthy diet can help prevent and manage of a number of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. We predict that by 2030, NCDs will account for almost three-quarters of all deaths worldwide, so ensuring people have proper nutrition is becoming even more important in both developed and developing countries. We spoke with Dr. Francesco Branca, Director of Nutrition at WHO, to learn more about how eating pulses can have a positive impact on nutrition and health.

Why is good nutrition so important for health?

Good nutrition is really important for physical and mental development, and it allows people to reach their full potential (e.g. in school and at work). It also underpins a strong immune system, which protects us from both communicable and noncommunicable diseases. Undernutrition is a major contributor to the burden of disease. Almost half (45%) of all deaths among children under the age of five are linked to undernutrition. Unhealthy diet is the greatest underlying cause of deaths worldwide, accounting for 11 million deaths each year. Another measure of the burden of disease is the disability-adjusted life year (DALY), which is the number of years lost due to poor health, disability or early death. Unhealthy diet is responsible for 241.4 million DALYs; child and maternal malnutrition accounts for 176.9 million DALYs; and obesity for 134 million DALYs.

Pulses contain many nutrients, one of the most important of which is fibre. Can you explain some of the health benefits of a diet rich in fibre?

When someone has a diet that is high in fibre, this can help prevent him or her from becoming obese, especially when s/he also does sports or other physical activity. Studies suggest that one of the reasons that type 2 diabetes was relatively rare in rural Africa 40 years ago was because people there were eating a diet that was high in fibre. More recent studies in the United States also indicate that diets that are high in fibre reduce the chances of developing diabetes. Eating foods like pulses that are high in fibre can help bring down blood glucose and insulin levels, which is crucial for people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Many studies indicate that diets high in fibre can reduce the risk of heart disease and reduce blood pressure. One of the ways this works is because many types of fibre reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) in a person’s blood, which in turn lowers his or her risk of heart disease. There are many other health benefits of a diet rich in fibre, including some suggestion that it may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers and can protect from tooth decay.

In populations that are transitioning away from traditional diets that are high in fibre (e.g. the Mediterranean diet)—fibre intake is going down, spurring an increased risk of NCDs.

How do pulses fit into WHO’s recommendations for a healthy diet?

WHO and FAO recommend that people eat at least 400 g of fruit and vegetables per day, which includes pulses and other legumes. This is equivalent to consuming about 25 g of dietary fibre per day. In recent years, the consumption of pulses has gone down from approximately 10 kg/person/year in the ‘60s to the current levels of just above 6 kg/person/year—and people are not eating the recommended amount of fibre. Increasing the consumption of pulses and other legumes can improve the quality of people’s diets and their overall health. One of the ways governments can encourage this is by issuing food-based dietary guidelines, but the specific foods which will be acceptable to the population will depend on the unique culture and context of each country or region.