This is the year of the lentil. It's also the year of the bean, pea and chickpea.

To make that more succinct, just call 2016 the year of the pulse, as lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans are all part of a food family called pulses. They're also a source of vegetarian protein — and are expected to show up on more dinner tables as cuts of meat grow more expensive this year.

The United Nations declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. And Canada happens to be a world leader in the production of these healthy, cheaper sources of protein.

Michael Smith, a chef and cookbook author as well as a Food-TV host and host of the web series Lentil Hunter, is an ambassador for Canada's Year of Pulses. He calls the legumes "nutritional superstars."

"We all know that we need more fibre in our diet, more protein. And we all know food is going up in cost. So here's an ingredient — pulses: chickpeas, lentils and beans — that hits all those marks," said Smith.

While pulses are known for their sizeable portions of protein, they also contain complex carbohydrates, dietary fibre, vitamins and dietary minerals.

Smith said pulses are the way millions of people get their daily intakes of protein. Part of the reason for that is they are so easy to prepare. "Gosh, it's so easy to cook with this stuff!" he said.

But in North America, most people believe protein has to come from meat. "We're really the only culture that does that," he said. "Pulses, of course, come with much less impact on the environment."

Chef Michael Smith on pulses5:25

But that's not all. Pulses are:

  • Sustainable to farm and net-positive for soil.
  • Financially lucrative for Canadian farmers.
  • Inexpensive and easy to find for Canadian consumers.
  • And tasty, according the Smith.

"I'm not here to say don't eat meat," said the chef, who admits to enjoying a steak from time to time. "But I am here to say that we're all going to need to find alternatives to meat, that we shouldn't be eating meat every day."

As an ambassador for the seeds and lentils, Smith is challenging Canadians to eat more of them. He is posting recipes to PulsePledge.com. His goal is to get Canadians to eat a half a cup of pulses every week for at least 10 weeks.

"Billions of people around the world do it,"  he said. "You can do it."