The health benefits of the humble chickpea!

As I was tucking into my lunch yesterday I was taken by just how tasty the chickpeas were!  Munching on the little gems got me thinking about their nutritional value and their potential benefits to our health.

 

These ‘legumes’ go by many names: Chickpea, Ceci Bean, Indian Pea, Egyptian Pea, Garbanzo Bean and Gram and are mainly grown in the Mediterranean, Indian subcontinent and western Asia where they form a major part of the diet.  I was interested to learn that they are thought to be one of the earliest vegetables cultivated by humans.

 

Chickpeas are a useful source of fibre, zinc, folate and protein.  Being ever curious I hit the medical journals to see if there were any chickpea-specific studies.  I was in luck, one small study(1) has been published this month.  The authors wanted to assess the impact that incorporating chickpeas into the diet of 45 adults would have on their health.  The individuals taking part consumed about 728g of canned, drained chickpeas per week, (if you break this down to 100g per day it doesn’t sound like such a huge amount!), for 12 weeks.  After this time the participants went back to eating their normal diet for 4 weeks.

 

In the ‘chickpea phase’ they ate around 7g more fibre a day (this is significant, as the UK population generally do not consume enough fibre) than they did during the ‘normal phase’.  They also had a lower saturated fat: polyunsaturated fat ratio.  Interestingly during the ‘chickpea phase the participants had significantly lowered total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, thought to be the ‘bad guy’ cholesterol linked to heart disease, and also had better markers for blood sugar control (they showed lower fasting insulin levels and lower insulin resistance).  Analysis by the scientists revealed that it was the dietary fibre content of the chickpeas that was having the greatest effect on these health indicators.  The authors comment that their results warrant larger studies in groups who have problems with high cholesterol levels and/or poor blood sugar control (such as individuals with type II diabetes or insulin-resistance syndrome).

 

Another small study that was published in 2006(2) showed similar benefits of including chickpeas in the diet.  The study compared the effects of a chickpea-supplemented diet to those of a wheat-supplemented diet on cholesterol levels.  The 47 participants ate a chickpea-supplemented diet for at least 5 weeks and then a wheat-supplemented diet for at least 5 weeks.  The serum total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels were significantly lower after the chickpea-supplemented diet as compared with the wheat-supplemented diet.

 

A diet that is high in fibre has been linked to numerous health benefits in most areas of the body from the: heart, where it seems to have positive effects on blood pressure and risk of heart disease; digestive system where it seems to be useful to sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation and diverticulitis and the immune system where there seems to be a link with reduced risk of cancer.  A high fibre diet also appears to be very useful in blood sugar control and also appetite control as it gives us the feeling of fullness and helps to control satiety.  The recommended daily intake for fibre in the UK is currently set at 18g/d, however for optimal health many experts regard at least 25g per day as necessary.  In the UK our average intake is low at only 12g/d.

 

Chickpeas can be easily incorporated into salads, curries, dips (e.g. hummus), veggie-burgers, casseroles and stews….the list is endless.  If you are using canned chickpeas (which are very convenient and still nutritious) go for those in water with no added salt or sugar.

 

(1)Pittaway JK, Robertson IK, Ball MJ.  2008.  Chickpeas may influence Fatty Acid and fiber intake in an ad libitum diet, leading to small improvements in serum lipid profile and glycemic control.  J Am Diet Assoc. 108:1009-13.
(2) Pittaway JK, Ahuja KD, Cehun M, Chronopoulos A, Robertson IK, Nestel PJ, Ball MJ.  2006.  Dietary supplementation with chickpeas for at least 5 weeks results in small but significant reductions in serum total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterols in adult women and men.  Ann Nutr Metab.  50(6):512-8.

 

Written by Ani Kowal

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