Legumes -including beans, soybeans, lentils, peas, and peanuts- are staples in many plant-based diets. They provide protein, nutrients, and fiber and are present in many popular vegan foods such as bean burgers, tofu, hummus, peanut butter, and pea protein powder. However, some people can’t eat legumes due to digestive issues or allergies which may complicate living a vegan lifestyle.
It is definitely possible to be vegan while avoiding legumes. It may be more difficult to eat at restaurants, as many vegan options are soy or bean-based. Vegans such as Spud Fit and Chef AJ have proven that you can live healthfully and avoid animal products even while bean-free.
While it’s not necessary, it’s recommended to eat beans if you can for the health benefits. Legume intolerances take away this option for some, but not to worry as many other options can replace legumes for both culinary and nutritional purposes.
Do Vegans Have to Eat Legumes
Technically, you don’t have to eat any specific food or food category on a vegan diet.
Andrew Taylor, also known as Spud Fit, lived off only potatoes (with some sauces and vitamin B12 supplementation) for a year with no negative health consequences.
A varied diet will surely help prevent certain nutrient deficiencies, but as long as you’re getting enough calories (preferably from whole food sources) and supplementing with B12 there should be no problems.
However, legumes certainly have many health benefits, and if you can eat legumes it’s worth it to incorporate them. Legumes are high in fiber and protein, low in fat, cholesterol-free, and vitamin-rich (high in folate, iron, and magnesium).
They’ve also been linked to heart health. This study found legume consumption to reduce participants’ risk of coronary heart disease, while another study showed that consuming pulses reduces blood pressure. Legumes have also been found to reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
Legumes also generally reduce mortality and extend life.
Research of Taiwanese women eating a bean-free diet found an increased risk of all-cause mortality, and a different study concluded that legume consumption helped predict the survival of elderly people across multiple ethnicities.
Can You Be a Vegan if You Can’t Eat Beans
Despite all the health benefits of legumes, they aren’t necessary to be vegan.
Chef AJ, a seasoned chef in the vegan community, does not eat beans due to digestive issues, so it’s definitely possible.
Many substitutions can be made for bean-based recipes, and the nutrition from legumes can be found in other foods.
Eating other starches, like potatoes and rice, as well as fruits and vegetables can help reduce disease and extend life just like legumes can.
Can You Be Intolerant to Legumes
People can be allergic to legumes (sometimes even causing an anaphylactic reaction), have legume intolerance, or have IBS or SIBO which are aggravated by legumes. Legumes contain complex carbohydrates, a lot of fiber, and some indigestible carbohydrates making them difficult to digest.
Legume intolerance refers to digestive symptoms (bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea, or constipation) that occur from consuming legumes. Having a food sensitivity to legumes may include additional non-digestive symptoms like headaches or irritability, while a legume allergy causes an immune system reaction (symptoms may include swelling, a rash, etc.).
Some preparation methods can reduce symptoms for those experiencing legume intolerance, such as soaking or sprouting legumes. For more information, the North American Vegetarian Society supplies this resource to vegans with food sensitivities.
What Is a Good Substitute for Legumes
Many legume-based vegan products have substitutions. Some vegan yogurts (coconut or almond-based) can replace tofu in recipes.
Instead of soy milk, drink one of the many other plant-based milk options (oat, almond, rice, etc).
Coconut aminos can replace soy sauce, avocado can replace hummus, and hemp protein can replace pea protein. The following 8 foods are also effective replacements for legumes:
Nuts and Seeds
While peanuts are legumes, other nuts are not. Substituting with cashews, almonds, or walnuts is an easy switch. Nuts and seeds also provide many nutrients and vitamins found in legumes like protein and magnesium. Keep in mind they’re higher in fat, so it’s better to use them to fill in nutritional gaps rather than replacing beans, lentils, or peas in recipes.
Potatoes create a similar heartiness as beans in dishes such as chili, curry, soup, or stew. Nutritionally, they’re also low in fat and high in fiber like legumes and supply vitamins C, B-6, magnesium, folate, and potassium.
Mushrooms are a great replacement for beans texturally and also have health benefits due to their antioxidant content (which may help prevent cancer). Mushrooms can also sometimes replace tofu in recipes (such as stir-fry) and are also a great addition to a beanless chili.
Seaweed such as nori, wakame, and kelp are nutritional powerhouses packed with vitamins and minerals along with a fair bit of protein. Adding sea vegetables to your salad instead of legumes can help increase the nutritional benefits of your meal without the digestive side effects.
Squash and Sweet Potato
Similar to potatoes, squash and sweet potato are effective replacements for legumes both nutritionally (low fat, high fiber, vitamin-rich) and in some recipes. For example, butternut squash or zucchini burgers can replace black bean burgers. Squash or sweet potatoes can replace lentils in curry.
Quinoa, Rice, and Other Grains
Grains, especially quinoa, can provide protein in place of legumes. Quinoa has 8g of protein per cup, the same protein content as green peas. Grains like sorghum and barley can also provide a similar chewy texture present in most legume recipes. Black rice can also be used to replace black beans, try out Chef AJ’s delicious beanless burger recipe:
Corn can replace beans or peas in many recipes, especially in Latin American cuisine. A good source of fiber, vitamin C, B, and magnesium, corn is a satisfying stand-in for legumes in dishes such as bean salsa, burritos, or bean stew.
Cauliflower, Kale, and Other Veggies
Low in fat but high in nutrients, vegetables (especially cruciferous veggies) are a great substitute for legumes.
They’re high in fiber, low fat, contain decent protein and loads of vitamins (especially vitamins A, K, C, B-6, magnesium, calcium, copper, and manganese).
In cooking, chopped kale or cauliflower rice can help bulk up a dish similar to legumes. Other vegetables like eggplant (great for Italian dishes) or green beans may also work depending on the way legumes are used in the recipe you’re modifying.