If you're trying to shift your diet towards more nutritious foods, you need to make friends with dried beans, chickpeas and lentils, if you haven't already. Their nutritional benefits are legendary. Just one example: studies of the world's longest-living people (in the so-called "blue zones") find that such beans are the one specific food they all eat in common.

But health is just one focus of a new United Nations campaign around these wonders; the UN has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a global marketing effort promoting their promise in feeding a growing population. (Such declarations only occasionally involve edible crops, by the way: the last two such designations were quinoa, in 2013, and potatoes, in 2008. Last year, the two subjects were soil and light/light-based technologies.) Among other things, the campaign asked member nations to submit recipes for signature dishes using pulses. It also inspired United States and Canadian growers to launch the Pulse Pledge, a website where eaters can "pledge" to eat more pulses and get access to recipes, cooking tips and more.

Below, Tim McGreevy, a pulse farmer in Washington state and chief executive of the American Pulse Association, talks about the campaign and about growing, cooking and eating pulses (which are sometimes referred to as "grain legumes").

What exactly defines pulses, and how is the term different from other categories we use for legumes and beans? "They're a legume. The legume category is broad. It includes soya beans, it includes peanuts. The category of pulse crops actually is a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation definition. There are 11 types, but [some of] the primary pulse crops are dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, a little bit of fava beans as well. They're in their dry form; they're not fresh. We're not fresh peas, we're not fresh green beans, which are terrific products but not pulse products. Pulses are really defined because they have a low oil content compared with the other legumes in the family."

So that's what makes them unlike peanuts? "Yes. Soya beans have a very high oil content, and so do peanuts. Pulses really are in their own category in the legume matrix.

"Legume plants are unique in the plant kingdom because they fix much of their own nitrogen in the soil from the air. The pulse crops in particular are very good at fixing nitrogen. They require none to very little fertiliser to produce a good crop, which is absolutely critical."

Why else are they considered such an important food from a global perspective? "For the developed world, like the United States, [which has] problems with weight management, these crops offer super high protein and an excellent source of dietary fibre. These foods will keep you full longer and will help with weight management. From the UN's perspective, these are absolutely critical to food security. People don't need as much dietary fibre in the developing countries, but they need the protein. In combination with a cereal grain like wheat or rice or corn, these crops are a complete vegetable plant protein, and they're environmentally sustainable.

"In the Green Revolution [research and development and technology transfer initiatives that occurred between the 1930s and the late 60s], a lot of research efforts were focused on cereal grains. We tripled the yields of these crops, these cereal grain crops, and put calories around the world. We have enough calories to feed everybody. But what was left behind in that huge research effort were pulse crops. And I think they're just as critical to food security."

When it comes to food waste, surely it helps that these are dry products and so easy to store? "Yes. The word 'pulse' is from a Latin word, puls, that means 'thick soup'. One reason the Romans were able to conquer the world is because they had lentils and pulse crops that they carried with them in their knapsacks. They'd have some rice and they'd have some pulses in some form, a lot of lentils in particular, and dry beans. They would cook up their own vegetable protein, and they could go long distances, which they did, without having to kill animals and without all that spoilage."

What do you hope the UN campaign can do for pulses? "I hope we can raise awareness of the importance of these crops to human health and to food security around the world. In our family we eat quinoa, and it's a great product. But it's also a terrifically expensive crop because it's grown in a limited area. Pulses, though, are grown around the world. There's a pulse in every single culture." (Pulses grown in China include the broad bean, which is also called the Sichuan bean, because of its popularity in the province's cuisine. India is the world's largest producer and the largest consumer of pulses.)

"These are really important crops in a crop rotation. These are low-input crops and low water-use crops."

Is water use a big concern? "It's a huge concern. It's about having the water resources to produce food. These crops use a tenth of the water of other protein sources. They're just a critical component as we increase our population around the world, heading towards nine billion people. We've got to have these crops. We've got to have better science. We have to make these crops more productive."

Why doesn't America eat as many pulses as people in other parts of the world? "When the Europeans descended upon the Americas, they brought pulses with them, because they are portable, they are storable and they were a staple. But we are a meat culture, a meat protein culture. We are not under-proteined in this country. We are over-proteined. That's a great thing, but people are starting to look more and more at plant proteins because of a lot of different factors. Health is one and sustainability is certainly another."

Do people have misconceptions about pulses and how to cook them? "Absolutely. Our consumer research has shown that people don't know how to use them, and they're intimidated by them, especially in their dry form - for dry beans, for example, they have to soak them overnight. However, of course, there are canned products. There also is now flash-frozen coming on the scene. You literally rip the bag open and heat it up a little bit and it's ready to go."

Indian food showcases the pulses that don't need soaking at all, the ones that cook the quickest. "Split peas and lentils are as fast to cook as pasta, quinoa and rice. If you're willing to cook rice, then lentils and split peas, you can cook those as well. But people don't know. That's the beauty of having this designation. It gives us an opportunity to tell people how versatile these products are, how to cook them, how they really assume the flavours, the spices, that you put in them. That's what we're hoping, that we can get that message out: Don't be intimidated."

What are your favourite ways to eat them? "With the chickpeas that I raise, of course, we make hummus. Hummus has taken centre stage, and it's tremendous. And roasted chickpeas are terrific.

"Another thing, with lentils, they cook really quickly, so in our house, since my wife, Christine, is into green drinks, we are actually now including lentils as a purée right in with our smoothie. I'm telling you, getting that good protein hit early in the morning is a game-changer."

Smoky black bean and sweet potato chilli

This recipe makes six to eight servings.

The classic pairing of black beans and sweet potatoes becomes a deeply flavoured, warming winter stew. It gets a touch of smoky flavour from the combination of chipotle and smoked paprika.

The chilli can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for up to three months.

This recipe is adapted from one in Food52 Vegan: 60 Vegetable-Driven Recipes for Any Kitchen, by Gena Hamshaw (Ten Speed Press, 2015).

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 medium-small yellow onions, chopped

1 ¼ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 chipotle in adobo, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ancho chilli powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

½ teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

One 14.5-ounce can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, plus their juices

3 ½ cups cooked no-salt-added black beans, rinsed and drained (from about 2 ¼ 15.5-ounce cans)

1 ½ cups home-made or no-salt-added vegetable broth, or more as needed

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed

Flesh of 1 large Hass avocado, sliced, for garnish

¼ cup thinly sliced chives, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for eight minutes, or until tender and translucent. Add the sweet potato and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant and the sweet potato is just starting to soften (eight to 10 minutes). Add the chopped chipotle, ancho chilli powder, cumin and smoked paprika; cook, stirring constantly, until the spices are very fragrant and well distributed (about one minute).

Stir in the diced tomato, black beans and broth; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, so the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potato is tender (30 to 35 minutes), adding broth as needed to achieve your desired consistency.

Stir in the salt; taste, and add more as needed.

Let the chilli sit for a few minutes so the flavours meld. Serve hot, topped with the avocado and chives.

Nutrition per serving (based on eight portions): 210 calories, 9 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 260mg sodium, 10 grams dietary fibre, 7 grams sugar.

Tropical green protein smoothies

This recipes makes four eight-ounce smoothies.

You'd never guess that the protein in this brightly flavoured smoothie comes from lentils.

Frozen lentils can be found in some supermarkets, but you can also cook any variety of lentil you like, drain well and freeze at least overnight.

This recipe is adapted from one by Brittney Galloway, at PulsePledge.com.

2 cups unsweetened apple juice

2 tablespoons coconut oil

2 cups lightly packed spinach leaves

¼ cup fresh pineapple chunks

1 cup cooked, frozen lentils, any variety

1 cup frozen mango chunks

Combine the apple juice, coconut oil, spinach, pineapple, frozen lentils and frozen mango in a blender; purée until smooth.

Divide among glasses; serve right away.

Nutrition per serving: 210 calories, 5 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 20mg sodium, 5 grams dietary fibre, 20 grams sugar.

Spiced roasted chickpeas

This party appetiser has a fraction of the fat found in nuts but is just as snackable. Consider the recipe as more of a formula; you can use your favourite spices and spice blends instead of the Indian chaat masala called for here. Substitute za'atar, Chinese five-spice, ras el hanout, dukkah, Old Bay, Spanish smoked paprika and more. This recipe makes 12 servings.

The roasted chickpeas can be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.

This recipe is adapted from one on PulsePledge.com and at TheKitchn.com.

3 cups no-salt-added canned or home-cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained (from two 15-ounce cans)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon chaat masala or spice blend of your choice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Celsius.

Dry the chickpeas thoroughly on paper towels by gently rolling them, then spread the chickpeas in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil and toss to coat, then sprinkle with the salt. Roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden brown and crisp on the outside (20 to 30 minutes).

Remove from the oven. Taste, and sprinkle with more salt as needed, then season with chaat masala (or another spice), tossing or stirring until the chickpeas are evenly coated.

For maximum crispness, serve warm; once the chickpeas have cooled they will be less crisp but addictively chewy.

Nutrition per serving: 80 calories, 4 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 140mg sodium, 3 grams dietary fibre, 2 grams sugar.

The Washington Post