Texture, health, and lentil salad

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For a long time, scientists believed that the chemical makeup of nutrients was what made them important. Food itself was seen as just a vehicle for these nutrients.

(If you’re interested, Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food,” is an excellent criticism of what he calls “nutritionism”. Essentially, his premise is that we have replaced food with nutrients, and with dire consequences. Great book, highly recommend it.)

I’ve always found this model to be deeply flawed. Nutrition, like most things in life, is far more complex than it seems. Now, new studies are finding that the texture of food may in fact play a critical role in its health effects.

Macular degeneration is a condition in older adults where damage to the retina causes vision loss in the center of their field of vision. It can eventually progress into blindness. My grandmother suffers from macular degeneration, and since it tends to run in the family, my mother, sister, and I all have an increased chance of developing macular degeneration.

Previously, the research done on diet and macular degeneration focused on nutrients and antioxidants that protect against the disease or minimize its effects. However, researchers at Tufts University found that the glycemic index of the foods consumed had an even greater effect that their nutrient contents.

Glycemic index is a way of measuring how much a certain food raises our blood sugar. White bread is an example of a food with a high glycemic index; if you eat a slice of white bread, you quickly get a sharp spike in blood sugar. Carrots have a much lower glycemic index. If you eat them, your blood sugar will still rise, but in more of a gentle curve than a sharp spike.

The researchers at Tufts found that patients who ate a relatively high glycemic index diet had a higher chance of developing macular degeneration, while patients who ate a low glycemic index diet had a much lower risk. You can read some of their studies here and here if you’re interested. This was proof that the physical makeup of the food itself, not just its nutrient content, could have an effect on human health.

Carbohydrates with more protein and fiber have lower glycemic indexes while processed foods tend to be higher on the scale. Lentils are a great low glycemic index food. They’re high in protein and in fiber, which makes it take longer to break down the sugars in them. Lentils are also cheap, cook quickly (no presoaking!) and taste phenomenal. They’re a staple in my kitchen, and the following lentil salad is one of my favorite ways to make them.

Dijon Lentil Salad

Adapted from Budget Bytes

I love to eat this stuffed in a whole wheat pita with some lettuce or spinach but it’s also delicious on its own. It can be eaten warm or cold. 

Time: 45 min

Yield: 4-6

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, separated
  • 1 medium turnip, peeled and chopped small (about 1/4-1/2 in)
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped small (about 1/4-1/2 in)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 cup brown lentils (uncooked)
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

Instructions:

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add carrots and turnip. Cook until vegetables start to soften and turnip begins to turn transparent, about 3-5 minutes.
  2. Dice onion. Add onion, cloves, and garlic to pot. Cook, stirring, until onions become transparent (about 5 minutes).
  3. Rinse lentils, checking for stones. Add lentils and water to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until lentils are soft. Depending on how fresh your lentils are, this may take 20 minutes to an hour. Start tasting them at 20 minutes to check.
  4. Drain lentils in a sieve. Return to pot (off the stove) and add 1 Tbsp of oil.
  5. Whisk mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper together in a bowl.
  6. Pour dressing over lentils. Add parsley and toss until mixed.
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