All the benefits of beans and more
Lentils are like the little legumes that could. Of course they are super nutritious. But that’s just the beginning.
“Lentils are extremely versatile,” says Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian and owner of Hispanic Food Communications. “Not only are they a great addition to lunches and dinners, but you’d be amazed at how delicious they can be for snacks and even breakfast.”
They are also inexpensive and a cinch to prepare. What’s not to love?
If you haven’t tried lentils lately, here’s why they deserve a spot in your pantry.
Lentils: the original ancient protein
Botanically speaking, lentils belong to a family of plants called legumes, which are the edible seeds of legumes. Legumes include dried beans, peas, and chickpeas.
They’ve been around for millennia, literally.
Lentils are one of the oldest domesticated crops. They are so old that they are even mentioned in the Old Testament.
Initially enjoyed by the ancient Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, these drought-tolerant proteins quickly migrated to India and Europe and eventually to North America.
Types of lentils
If eating the rainbow is one of your nutritional goals, lentils can help.
There are red lentils, yellow lentils, green lentils, brown lentils, black Beluga lentils and more – each with a different shape, size, taste, texture and cooking time.
Which one should you use? From a culinary point of view, there are basically two types of lentils:
- whole lentils: These still have their seed coat intact, so they keep their shape after cooking. This makes them an excellent choice for salads, burgers, tacos and meatloaf. Look for: French Green Lentils and Black Beluga Lentils.
- split lentils: Since split lentils have been stripped of their seed coat, they cook faster than whole lentils. They also tend to break down under heat, making them better suited for dips, smoothies, soups, curries and muffins. Look for: split red or yellow lentils.
Most lentils are sold dry, but you can also find them canned.
If you’re looking for other creative ways to eat more of this healthy legume, try lentil flour in pancakes or muffins. Or whip up a jar of lentil paste for a healthy boost of plant-based protein and fiber.
In the snack bar you will also find lentils in the form of chips and puffs. While these can provide some nutrition, they can also have added sodium and fat. They cannot therefore be compared with minimally processed lentil products.
Like other beans, lentils are packed with healthy vegetable protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
They are also high in slow-digesting, healthy complex carbohydrates. That’s a good thing for most of us, but keep an eye on portion sizes if you’re on a low-carb diet.
One cup of cooked lentils (198 grams) contains the following nutrients and daily values (DV):
Egg white: 18 g (36 percent DV)
Fat: 1 g (1 percent DV)
Carbohydrates: 40 g (15 percent DV)
Fiber: 16 g (57 percent DV)
folic acid: 358 µg (90 percent RDA)
Iron: 7 mg (39 percent RDA)
Magnesium: 71 mg (17 percent RDA)
Potassium: 731 mg (16 percent RDA)
Zinc: 3 mg (27 percent RDA)
Health Benefits of Lentils
“The more lentils we eat, the more health benefits we receive,” said Nick Buettner, program director of The Blue Zones Project, a healthy communities initiative.
“Eating healthy, plant-based protein sources, such as lentils, instead of red and processed meats can reduce the risk of several diseases and premature death,” he says.
No wonder the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend consuming 1.5 to 3 cups of lentils and beans per week, depending on your calorie needs.
Here are some of the helpful things they can do for your body:
Improve heart health
Legumes, like lentils, contain a special type of cholesterol-lowering fiber called viscous fiber. As part of a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat, a daily serving of legumes can reduce “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) by an additional 4 to 5 percent, Buettner says.
“Practically, bartering beans and lentils for some of the meat you consume also saves money,” he adds.
Lentils are exceptionally high in folate, which may help protect against several types of cancer, such as head, neck, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer, Buettner says.
They are so powerful that a 2019 Clinical Nutrition A study of 7,216 people found that those who consumed the most lentils were 37 percent less likely to die from cancer than rare legume eaters.
Weight loss help
“Lentils are an excellent source of dietary fiber, a nutrient that makes us feel full and can reduce appetite and help prevent overeating,” says Buettner.
Combine that with their generous protein, and you have a winner.
What about the calories of lentils? You don’t have to worry. A recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis of 21 studies found that eating legumes, such as lentils, helped people lose weight, even without cutting calories.
Improve gut health
Lentils have a cocktail of substances that improve gut health, says Karen Cichy, a research plant geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In addition to their abundant fiber, lentils also contain resistant starch and prebiotics called oligosaccharides, which serve as food for beneficial gut bacteria, she explains.
Safety, risks and side effectscts
Like beans, fiber-rich lentils can cause gas and bloating if they’re not a regular part of your diet.
Starting with small portions can give your digestive system a chance to adjust.
Lentils can also cause discomfort if you are sensitive to FODMAP foods — these are foods that can ferment in the colon and cause bloating and gas. However, recent research shows that rinsing lentils after cooking can help.
What about the fact that they contain lectins – plant proteins that some say have a negative effect on health?
First, it may be helpful to know that concerns about lectins are overblown. Even if lectins were a problem, lentils aren’t to blame.
“The lectin content in fully cooked lentils shouldn’t be a problem because lectins are deactivated during the cooking process, even without soaking,” says Cichy.
How to prepare lentils
Unlike beans, which require soaking and eons to cook, lentils are quick.
Depending on the type, these little guys cook in five to twenty minutes. And soaking is not necessary. Rinse them briefly, boil them in a large pot of water and you’re good to go.
However, if you’re really short on time, make a batch of instant pot lentils or crockpot lentils.
Or if you don’t have any motivation to cook, grab canned lentils, Klinger suggests.
“I always have a few cans of lentils on hand in my pantry for last-minute dishes like soups and patties,” she adds.
Ready to add more lentils to your life? Try them in these tasty recipes:
And remember, they’re still a win in lentil soup.