With lentils, what's old is new again


If you're looking for a hearty but low-fat lunch, try lentils. They're a modern miracle health food as old as the hills.

Probably the first cultivated legume, lentils have been grown for food since 7000 B.C., according to Harold McGee in "On Food and Cooking."

Lentils are the most digestable of all the legumes, and the easiest to prepare. Unlike most beans, lentils don't have to be soaked, and can be cooked, from scratch, in 15 to 20 minutes.

Health benefits abound. Just one cup of cooked lentils provides 232 calories, 18 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbohydrate, and only a trace of fat and sodium. They're ideal food for athletes, weight watchers and folks looking for more vegetarian meals.

Eight grams of dietary fiber are divided between the insoluble type that keeps the digestive system functioning, and the soluble kind known to lower cholesterol, making them an outstanding entree for people managing heart disease or diabetes.

That cup of lentils will also provide 36 percent of iron needed for the day, especially important to women of childbearing age. Eat lentils with dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach salad, or tomatoes, or fresh citrus fruit, to get maximum iron absorption.

Lentils are an outstanding source of folic acid, one of the essential B vitamins. One cup of lentils provides 358 micrograms, about 90 percent of the amount recommended for all women of childbearing potential to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. Folic acid has also been cited as helping to prevent cataracts and some kinds of uterine cancer, so it's important for people of all ages.

Lentils come in many colors (green, yellow, red and brown) with slight flavor variations. Regardless of color, a mild taste that blends easily with other foods is their hallmark.

If you don't like bland, go bold by adding Mexican spices such as cilantro, cumin, diced chilis and red pepper flakes.

Or go Moroccan. Combine lentils with sweet potatoes, fresh ginger, cayenne pepper and cumin.

In the Mediterranean mood? Make a salad. Mix cold cooked lentils with red, green and yellow bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, black olives, fresh basil and oregano.

Too tired to cook even a little? Open a can. Try Progresso Lentil Soup. Want it zestier? Stir in just a touch of sherry. Top with a little Swiss cheese.

Easiest of all, try Fantastic Foods' Leapin' Lentils Over Couscous. Just add boiling water and let it stand for five to seven minutes.

Because lentils are plants, their protein profile does not provide all the essential amino acids needed to support life, growth and tissue repair. But the missing elements are easily supplied by grains, nuts, seeds, dairy foods, eggs or meat.

In the past, a great to-do was made about completing those plant proteins within the same meal. More recent research shows the missing elements can be made up anytime during the day.

Some lentil-grain combinations are naturals, though. Lentils and wheat (couscous), and lentils and barley have been eaten together since ancient times.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant the the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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