Whole-grain Millet: Good for Hearts (and More!)

Lemony Millet SaladFluffy like couscous or creamy like polenta, millet has many things going for it: it’s gluten-free (appealing for those trying to avoid gluten), a good source of protein, and loaded with health benefits.

So why aren’t we consuming more millet on a regular basis? Especially when it’s so versatile, inexpensive, and easy to prepare?

One word: birdseed.

Most people equate this delicious whole grain with birdseed, even though the millet for human consumption differs from what our feathered friends eat.

Like other whole grains that retain all parts of the seed (bran, germ and endosperm), millet helps protect the heart and it does so in more ways than one. Millet’s fiber helps prevent heart disease by lowering both blood pressure and bad cholesterol. Hearts also benefit from millet’s rich supply of magnesium, an essential mineral for maintaining a steady heartbeat and normal blood pressure. And because millet is relatively low in calories (only 200 per cooked cup), this satisfying grain helps hearts by assisting us with weight loss and maintenance. Extra pounds, as many know, put significant strain on your heart and worsen several heart-disease risk factors.

Millet may reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, thanks to its healthy concentration of two minerals that regulate blood sugar: magnesium and manganese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes, and the majority have Type 2. Studies have shown that low blood levels of both minerals can increase insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes. Of course, millet’s overall nutritional profile — high in filling fiber; low in fat, sugar and salt — is just as important in keeping diabetes at bay.

One cup of cooked millet serves up six grams of protein, an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals. Millet, however, is not a complete protein because it lacks the amino acid lysine. The addition of lysine-rich beans to any millet dish easily creates a complete protein.

Lemony Millet Salad with Fresh Asparagus, Mini Peppers and Black Beans

3/4 cup millet
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 bunch asparagus
8 mini peppers
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 large garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup flat-leaf parsley, rinsed, dried and roughly chopped
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Combine millet with water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until water is absorbed (about 20 minutes).  Remove from heat and let it sit, covered, for 10 minutes, before fluffing it with a fork.

While millet is cooking, cut the asparagus, including the tips, into thin slices, crosswise, and place in a medium bowl. To prep the mini peppers, cut off the end, cut out the seeds, and then slice the peppers into rings, about 1/8-inch thick. Add black beans, millet and chopped parsley to vegetables; lightly toss.

Make the dressing by whisking together olive oil, lemon juice and zest, minced garlic, and salt and pepper. Drizzle over millet mixture, mix well, adjust seasonings, and top with toasted almonds.

Anne Palumbo is a lifestyle columnist, food guru, and seasoned cook, who has perfected the art of preparing nutritious, calorie-conscious dishes. She is hungry for your questions and comments about SmartBites, so be in touch with Anne at avpalumbo@aol.com.