Q What are pulses? I am trying to eat more plants and a friend said I should eat pulses? FJ, Greenville.

A You probably know pulses by another name. Julia Mooney, a senior ECU dietetic student will explain.

What are pulses? You may be surprised to find out that pulses are a common pantry item in many homes around the world. As far back as 10,000 years, humans have enjoyed eating pulses. A pulse is a dry, edible seed from a plant that is considered part of the legume family. However, pulses differ from other legumes that are plants that grows in a pod while pulses are the edible seeds that come from legumes.

Examples of popular forms of pulses include chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and navy beans. These beans can be purchased dried, canned, boxed or frozen and are relatively inexpensive compared to other animal-based sources of protein. Canned pulses, which are more convenient to use, are slightly more expensive because they have been pre-cooked. You do not have to soak them overnight before cooking like you do many but not all pulses.

There are many nutritional benefits to consuming pulses regularly in your diet. Pulses are a great source of protein, rich in fiber, and provide many essential vitamins and minerals. For example, a ½ cup of chickpeas contains only 140 calories, less than 2 grams of fat, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and 6 grams of protein. Pulses give you 2-3 times more protein compared to other popular plant-based proteins like quinoa, oats or rice.

For example, ½ cup of lentils contains the same amount of protein as 1 cup of quinoa. This means that you can get the same amount of protein eating lentils as you would quinoa while consuming fewer calories. Unlike oilseeds like soybeans, canola and flax, pulses are very low in fat and contain high amounts of complex carbohydrates like soluble and insoluble fiber. One cup of any pulse can give you almost half of the total fiber that you need per day.

Fiber is an important nutrient that should be included in a well-balanced diet because it helps regulate blood sugar levels, manage weight and help to lower cholesterol levels. Fiber also helps to slow digestion and keep you feeling fuller for longer periods of time. And these fibers act as prebiotics that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut.

Another nutrient that pulses are high in is potassium. Potassium is an important nutrient for helping to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke Most of us do not meet our daily need for potassium. One cup of lentils contains a surprising 672 mg of potassium, a banana has 422 mg. Lentils that are sold as dhal in the U.S. have been processed and have less dietary fiber. Brown or green lentils hold their shape, so they are better in salads. Another benefit of pulses is that they are hypo-allergenic, meaning they will not cause an allergic reaction like soy does, so they are safe to eat.

Pulses are also the main ingredient in many familiar foods products. For example, the main ingredient in hummus is garbanzo beans, otherwise known as chickpeas. Hummus — a mixture of nutty tasting chickpeas and sesame paste originated in the Middle East due to the abundance of chickpeas in the area. Just two tablespoons of hummus contain only 60 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of protein.

Another food you can find in restaurants in eastern North Carolina that serve Mediterranean food that contains a pulse is falafel. Falafel also originated in the Middle East and is made from ground fava beans, chickpeas or a mixture of the two. One falafel or fried chickpea patty contains less than 60 calories, 3 grams of fat, 5 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of protein. Both hummus and falafel are considered low calorie options and are versatile in many dishes including sandwiches, salads, or eaten by itself as a snack.

In Eastern North Carolina, beans like kidney and navy beans are often a staple in families food cabinets and are often eaten with rice. A serving of kidney beans has 1.5 times the amount of iron in 3 ounces of steak and they are high in antioxidants.

Many people assume that since pulses are considered a starch and that those with Type 2 diabetes should not eat them. However, this is not the case. An appropriate serving of any type of pulse actually helps to reduce the effect of post-prandial glucose levels, or blood sugar levels after a meal more than other processed, starchy foods.

It’s funny that at a time when people say they want to eat plant-based foods the consumption of pulses is declining. Many people have stopped or have never even considered trying pulses due to the perceived lack of flavor. This can be resolved by adding different herbs, seasonings and spices to the pulse dish upon personal taste preferences.

Diets high in plant-based proteins have been shown to help reduce the risk of common chronic diseases including, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension and obesity. People need to be focusing on consuming more plant-based food options like pulses to help prevent these diseases and maintain a healthy weight. Cooked pulses can be stored up to five days in the refrigerator.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.