Eat beans and live long. Scientists base this conclusion on a cross-cultural study conducted by the International Union of Nutritional Sciences and the World Health Organization. After surveying nearly 1,000 elderly people from different cultural backgrounds, researchers found a consistent connection between legume consumption and longevity.
Yet how often have you forgone beans because you forgot to soak some the night before or didn’t start cooking them a couple of hours before mealtime? Or perhaps the postprandial effect of beans—flatulence—makes you steer clear.
Try lentils, instead. Tiny legumes, lentils pack just as much nutritional value as beans, take far less time to cook, and are easier to digest than their bulkier cousins.
A rich source of vitamin A, cholesterol-lowering fiber, potassium, B vitamins, and iron, lentils’ nutritional credentials have made them a valued ingredient in the cuisine of many cultures. Like most legumes, lentils also contain folate and phytochemicals that help reduce the risk of heart disease, and their isoflavones may play a role in preventing some cancers.
These little legumes are second only to soybeans in protein content—one cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams. And unlike animal-based sources of protein, lentils contain no cholesterol and almost no fat.
“Because of their ease in cooking, savory flavor, and high protein content, lentils are one of those foods that people can easily integrate into a new diet that is healthier yet still familiar,” says Ron Pickarski, the first professional vegetarian chef to be certified as an executive chef by the American Culinary Federation. He recommends mixing cooked lentils into traditional meatloafs or burgers in a ratio that pleases your palate. By reducing the amount of meat in favor of lentils, you’re also reducing the accompanying fat and cholesterol.
Experiment in the Kitchen
Lentils come in a spectrum of colors and sizes. Brown lentils tend to hold their shape with cooking, although they can turn mushy if cooked too long. Green (French or Puy lentils) are richer, meatier-tasting, and hold their shape better, making them ideal for salads.
Smaller, red split lentils are also known as red dal. They cook quickly, usually within 10 to 15 minutes, but follow package directions for proper cooking times for each variety.
Dried lentils can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for at least six months. Unlike other legumes, lentils require no presoaking and cook quickly. Before cooking, though, rinse them and check carefully for bits of stone or dirt that may be left over from harvest.