Legumes and nuts can both be part of a healthy diet.
They’re both pretty good sources of plant-based protein, but other than that, they’re quite different in terms of nutrition and taste.
I’ve gathered detailed nutritional data for several nuts and legumes, and I’ve broken down the major differences between the categories.
Table of Contents
What’s the Difference Between Nuts and Legumes?
Every bean is a legume, and so are a few other foods (peas, lentils, and a few less common ones).
Legumes are typically boiled or baked, and are soft.
Nuts on the other hand are seeds of trees. They are typically roasted, and have a hard outer shell and texture.
But some foods are quite confusing to classify into either category.
Most people think peanuts are nuts, even though they are technically a legume. As we’ll see later, nutritionally speaking, they have some properties of nuts, and some of legumes.
Nutrition and Protein: Legumes vs Nuts
If you’d like to see the full data, you can see a copy of the spreadsheet here (File -> make a copy if you’d like to edit it).
Otherwise, let’s look at the averages for each group together for the most important macro- and micro-nutrients.
All the data below is averaged for 1 cup of each food
There are quite a few differences here:
- Nuts have way more calories – Per 1 cup of nuts, there are almost 3 times as many calories as a cup of a typical legume.
- Nuts have more fat – Most of the calories from nuts come from the oils in them, which are fats, so it’s no surprise that they are one of the best vegan sources of fats. Nuts are very high in omega 6 fats (the “bad” kind), and low in omega 3 fats (the “good” kind), so you need to limit your intake.
- Legumes have a high proportion of protein – In legumes, protein makes up about 25% of the overall calories, while protein in nuts only makes up about 10% of calories. If you’re an athlete looking for protein, stick to legumes, nuts won’t help much. There is quite a bit of variation though, for example, lentils have significantly more protein than chickpeas.
What’s most interesting to me is that legumes and nuts both give you very similar levels of minerals like iron and zinc.
That being said, you have to keep in mind that if you look at nutrients on a per calorie basis, legumes will give you way more. It’s reasonable to eat a few cups of legumes in a day, but not nuts.
There are other differences that I didn’t point out above, but not particularly important ones for most people. For example, while both legumes and nuts are some of the best vegan phosphorus sources, it’s not a nutrient that’s hard to get for most.
**Note: The averages above did not include peas and peanuts, even though they are both legumes. They would skew the numbers, as discussed below.
Special Exceptions: Peas and Peanuts
Let’s take a quick look at the nutrition of peas and peanuts by themselves.
In one cup of each, there is:
Peas are often thought of as vegetables, and its nutrition kind of looks like that of a vegetable: fairly low in calories (much lower than other legumes), and mostly carbohydrates.
However, protein still makes up a similar percent of the overall calories (about 27%) to other legumes.
Peanuts on the other hand, have a ton of fat and calories, just like nuts. However, the protein content is again similar to legumes, at about (18%) of calories.
So both peas and peanuts have some main similarities to beans and other legumes, but also some big differences.
That’s why I think it’s best to think of them as their own special food group when considering adding them to your diet.
How Do Legumes and Nuts Fit Into Your Diet?
Both beans and nuts are “healthy” whole foods, and you should probably have at least some of each on a regular basis.
However, you have to be careful with nuts. It’s really easy to eat 1-2 cups of them without noticing, and there goes 1500 calories.
In general, most people don’t have an issue with getting enough calories, so carefully track your nut intake.
Legumes on the other hand are low in calories, very filling, and very nutritious. It would be very hard to go overboard on legumes. The only real side effect of eating a ton of legumes is some gas.
If you want to see some more detailed comparisons, see my post on kidney beans vs pinto beans, and pinto beans vs black beans.