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Taking your pulses

Date
Brain booster ... lentils are a tasty, no-fuss health food.*

Brain booster ... lentils are a tasty, no-fuss health food.* Photo: Edwina Pickles

We might hear a lot about childhood obesity but another trend that's got health authorities jittery is the spreading waistlines of the over 50s. It's not just the rising risk of heart disease that goes with ageing and weight gain either – but the effect on the brain.

"By itself, ageing is a risk factor for cognitive decline but obesity is another - and around 70 per cent of 55- to 74-year-olds are overweight or obese. We now have both factors working together to increase problems with brain function," says Associate Professor Jon Buckley, Director of the Nutritional Physiology Research Centre at the University of South Australia.

"A serve of meat gives you protein, but a serve of legumes gives you two for one – protein and vegetable both at the same time." 

But Buckley thinks ageing brains may have a new ally – foods like burritos, minestrone and dahl that are based on beans and lentils.

A preliminary study from Canadian researchers at the University of Manitoba has found that eating a serve of legumes daily for eight weeks improves the function of blood vessels, making them smoother and less rigid. Building on that evidence, Buckley is working on new research to see if eating legumes every day benefits the blood vessels supplying the brain.

Healthy blood vessels are more resistant to vascular dementia (the most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's) as well as heart disease and stroke.

"Supple arteries cope much better with the pressure of blood pumping around our body every day because they can expand to accommodate the volume," he explains. "But if they're like steel pipes they don't cope well and blood pressure increases."

Legumes are already linked to healthier cholesterol levels because of their high fibre content, but other positive effects on arteries may come from a range of bioactive compounds that are found in these foods – as well as the fact that they might displace other less healthy foods on the plate.

The real challenge though is getting us to eat more of them – only 22 per cent of Australians eat legumes once a week according to a study by the Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council – not knowing how to cook them was one of the main reasons people gave for not eating them.

Legumes are a quiet achiever, sustaining poorer people all over the planet, but in meat-loving Australia, their status is also-ran. It doesn't help that they're known as meat alternatives or meat substitutes either – yet they're not pretend meat any more than lamb chops are pretend lentils. With their earthy flavours, they're in a class of their own and are a versatile base for creating curries, casseroles, soups and salads – if only we knew how. We need need someone to do for legumes what Adriano Zumbo did for macarons.

The big hurdle for lots of us is the idea of pre-soaking beans before cooking, but you can skip this step by using canned legumes. Once you're an old hand you can work on soaking and cooking beans in bulk and storing in the freezer – but in the meantime, chickpeas, red kidney beans and cannellini beans are on every supermarket shelf. You'll find canned black beans and borlotti beans at delis or larger greengrocers. Lentils don't need pre-soaking. As for cooking, once you get started you soon realise that that making a pasta sauce or curry with beans or lentils is much the same as cooking with minced or chopped meat or poultry – you kick off with cooking some onions and then you toss in your legumes and flavours. Easy.

Including legumes in a dish doesn't mean it has to be a meatless meal either. You can just use less meat instead and pump up the volume with legumes. Good combinations are chicken with chick peas, and beef with black beans, red kidney beans, or borlotti beans.

Another great thing about legumes is that they make it easy to increase your vegetable intake, adds Buckley.

"A serve of meat gives you protein, but a serve of legumes gives you two for one – protein and vegetable - both at the same time."

What's your favourite legume dish?

* Steve Manfredi's lentil, carrot and turnip salad with hazelnut sauce recipe

63 comments so far

  • One of the great things about legumes (and pretty much all vegetables) is that if you do slightly undercook them then you don't end up with some form of debilitating food poisoning.

    After a long day at work I sometimes make a simple meal by putting some oil into a pot, adding garlic or ginger and onion and then some white beans. Stir them a bit and they turn to mush which can have some other vegies put into it, or be wrapped in flat bread. 10-15 minute meal right there.

    I also add lentils to a pumpkin and sweet potato soup. It is the cheapest way to add some volume and protein to the soup.

    Am still trying to work out how to cook black beans properly though.

    Commenter
    Beans
    Date and time
    August 07, 2012, 9:08PM
    • Never thought about adding lentils to pumpkin soup. Pretty good, cheap and healthy suggestion.
      I still love a good chilli con carne with lots of avocado and tomato on top.

      Commenter
      Ally
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 08, 2012, 11:05AM
  • A pressure cooker makes short work of cooking beans - chick peas usually take about 2 hours (and I nearly always burn them!) but the pressure cooker does them in 20 minutes - and they taste better for some reason and are more tender.

    I just made up a fantastic recipe for soup - cannelini beans, a whole cauliflower, vegie stock and rosemary. Cook 'em all up, blend, serve with olive oil and parmesan. Hearty, warming and wholesome.

    Commenter
    MJN
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 08, 2012, 10:12AM
    • Great article. Two favourite savoury dishes in my quite large recipe collection are sausage rolls filled with tinned brown lentils and pecans (meat eaters often ask for the recipe), and an awesome bolognaise which uses dry red lentils and sundried tomatoes. As you say, the beauty of these lentils is they don't need pre-soaking. My children's favourite is a quick easy dish known as 'chickpeas and couscous' - based on tinned chickpeas (always the Annalisa brand - their chickpeas are much softer and fuller than other brands), tomato soup, onion, garlic & carrot served with couscous.

      Commenter
      jkmt
      Location
      NSw
      Date and time
      August 08, 2012, 11:16AM
      • Can you please post the sausage rolls recipe? It sounds amazing!!!

        Commenter
        Ness
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 08, 2012, 4:29PM
      • Yes please, I would love the sausage roll recipe too.

        Commenter
        Moretea
        Date and time
        August 08, 2012, 9:25PM
      • Ness, the recipe came from one of those low-cost food magazines you get in the supermarket. I don't know which one, as unfortunately my photocopy of the recipe doesn't have the mag's name on it, otherwise I would give it a full credit, but it was a few years ago. Ingredients for the mix are: 1T olive oil, 1 onion chopped, 2 cans lentils drained & rinsed, 1/4 cup BBQ sauce, 1/2 cup chopped pecans, 1/3 cup breadcrumbs, 2T chopped parsley. Fry the onion in the oil, mix all ingredients together. This mix is enough for 3 sheets of puff pastry, cut in half and filled to make 6 long logs which can then be cut into smaller sausage rolls. I always sprinkle the pastry with sesame seeds before I put the mix on it, then brush the rolls with milk and more sesame seeds before I put them in the oven. Bake at 180 degrees for 35 minutes.

        Enjoy!

        Commenter
        jkmt
        Location
        NSW
        Date and time
        August 08, 2012, 11:26PM
    • I like beans and would prefer to cook my own to cut down on the salt present in many of the tinned varieties.

      How do I freeze them once cooked?

      Commenter
      Merrymary
      Date and time
      August 08, 2012, 11:20AM
      • I use both canned legumes and legumes that I soak and cook myself. If I use cans I rinse the beans first to reduce the salt. For freezing I just store them in plastic containers like I would with anything else. I vary the portion sizes - e.g smaller portions for adding to salads  or for a meal for two people and  larger portions  for cooking meals to serve four or more.

        Commenter
        Paula
        Date and time
        August 08, 2012, 11:44AM
      • Much better to freeze, and microwave, in glass, like the Pyrex containers available in most supermarkets. Try to avoid plastic for anything really. I just use a ceramic plate to cover food, and clipped paper bags for storage within a plastic container. You don't realise how pervasive plastic is until you start avoiding it.

        Commenter
        veggo
        Date and time
        August 09, 2012, 7:57AM

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