What’s there to love about lentils? Lentils nutrition benefits include the ability to improve and maintain heart health, help you to lose weight in a healthy way, fight blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to diabetes or low energy levels, and improve digestive health, too.
Lentils have been a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine for thousands of years; in fact, lentils go back to Neolithic times and are believed to be one of the oldest crops there is, with records showing that in the Near East, lentils were eaten as far back as 6,000 to 13,000 years ago!
Today, lentils are enjoyed all over the world in many types of recipes and are one of the best all-natural meat-substitute foods. Lentils are loved by vegetarians and vegans because they’re a great high-protein food, are rich in nutrients and have a hearty, dense texture.
But even though lentils nutritional benefits are so impressive, Americans typically don’t eat anywhere near the amount of lentils that other countries do. For example, a survey done in 2002 and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that only about 8 percent of adults are eating beans, lentils or other legumes on any given day despite how readily available and nutritious they are. (1)
Aside from their high supply of nutrients, what’s another benefit of including protein-packed lentils in your diet regularly? They’re dirt cheap and very versatile: A big batch of dry lentil costs only dollars, so they’re a great, economic way to add a healthy source of essential minerals, protein and dietary fiber to many types of meals without needing to purchase expensive cuts of meat.
Lentils Nutrition Facts
The lentil (which has the scientific name Lens culinaris) is a member of the legume plant family and is considered an edible pulse. Lentils grow on a bushy annual plant that produces the edible lens-shaped seeds within pods.
One cup of cooked lentils has about: (2)
- 230 calories
- 18 grams protein
- 15 grams of fiber
- 3.5 grams sugar
- less than 1 gram fat
- 358 milligrams folate (90 percent DV)
- 1 milligram manganese (49 percent DV)
- 6.6 milligrams iron (37 percent DV)
- 356 milligrams phosphorus (36 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligrams copper (25 percent DV)
- 0.5 milligrams thiamine (22 percent DV)
- 731 milligrams potassium (21 percent DV)
- 71 milligrams magnesium (18 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligrams vitamin B6 (18 percent DV)
- 2.5 milligrams zinc (17 percent DV)
- 1.3 milligrams vitamin B5/pantothenic acid (13 percent DV)
Many people are actually missing out in some key minerals provided by lentils — and have a legitimate iron deficiency and magnesium deficiency — so eating them often is a great way to cover your bases and prevent deficiencies, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.
Health Benefits of Lentils
1. Great Source of Filling Fiber
Eating plenty of fiber every day from whole foods is one of the surest ways to fill up and benefit your whole body. Lentils contain both insoluble and soluble fiber, which means they make you full by expanding in the stomach and absorbing water — plus they help improve heart, digestive and immune function by carrying waste, excess fat and toxins out of the body.
Some of the healthiest populations on earth, such as those living in blue zones like Italy and Greece following the typical Mediterranean diet, regularly eat lentils and experience better overall health because of it.
2. Protects Heart Health
Studies show that lentils are one of the best sources of soluble fiber, which makes them very beneficial for lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. (3) Researchers have found that diets high in lentils prevent hypertension and tend to produce more favorable cholesterol levels than diets lower in lentils. Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels reduces damage done to your arteries and prevents dangerous plaque buildup, which greatly lowers your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Compared to other types of fatty or processed meats, lentils are also very low in both fat and sodium, other key factors that make up a heart-healthy diet. Diets lower in sodium favor healthy blood pressure levels, as do the many nutrients that lentils provide like folate, potassium and magnesium. Folate can help to lower homocysteine levels, which is known to be a serious risk factor for heart disease, while magnesium and potassium help improve circulation and carry adequate oxygen and nutrients around the body.
3. Improves Digestive Health
With such high levels of dietary fiber, lentils should be on everyone’s list in order to promote regular bowel movements. The high level of insoluble fiber found in lentils absorbs water in the digestive tract, swelling up and carrying waste out of the digestive tract. (4)
This makes lentils a great digestive regulator and helps prevent constipation, IBS, inflammatory bowel diseases, diverticulitis and even diarrhea. In order to get the most digestive benefits from lentils nutrition, drink plenty of water so the fiber you consume has plenty of fluid to absorb.
4. Helps Alkalize the Body and Balance Its pH Level
Lentils are one of the most alkaline protein sources there is, which is important for balancing the body’s pH level and promoting a healthy gut environment. When the digestive system becomes too acidic — from eating processed foods high in sugar or fried foods, for example — an imbalance in bacteria develops that can lead to numerous health problems.
Lentils help combat the acidic environment of the gut and promote healthy bacterial growth, which is important for nutrient absorption and naturally preventing IBS, indigestion, constipation and many other diseases, too.
5. Helps Manage Blood Sugar Levels
Research indicates that the high level of soluble fiber found in lentils traps glucose from carbohydrates and slows down digestion. This means lentils can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which is important for preventing energy dips, mood changes, and serious conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia. (5)
One of the keys attributes of lentils nutrition is their low starch content. Lentils contain only about 35 percent digestible starch, and the remaining 65 percent is classified as resistant starch, the type that essentially escapes digestion and absorption in the small intestines because a high level of lentils’ carbohydrates and glucose cannot be digested in the body. They have a very low impact on blood sugar compared to refined grains and packaged carbohydrates.
6. High Source of Plant-Based Protein
Lentils are considered one of the best sources of plant-based, high-protein foods there is, with 18 grams of protein in every one-cup serving — the equivalent to eating about three whole eggs! They have the third-highest level of protein by weight of any legume or nut, coming just after soybeans and hemp seeds. Lentils can be used in place of meat in many recipes, whether you eat meat or not, in order to increase fiber and nutrient intake.
They’re an important source of protein for people who avoid eating animal products because in addition to just keeping someone from becoming protein-deficient, they also provide many minerals. Essential minerals typically found in meat, like iron and B vitamins, may be missing in a vegetarian diet and can lead to adrenal fatigue, mood changes and other symptoms.
7. Can Help You Lose Weight
With 15 grams of fiber in every one-cup serving of lentils, they’re one of the most filling “stick-to-your-ribs” foods there is. Lentils are low in calories but high in protein and fiber, which helps make you feel full so you’re less likely to snack throughout the day or overeat.
In fact, observational studies published in Advances in Nutrition show a correlation between high lentil (or pulse) consumption and a healthy body weight. That is, research consistently shows an inverse relationship between pulse consumption and a high BMI or risk for obesity. (6)
Another lentils nutrition benefit when it comes to weight loss? They can help control food cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates since they help balance your blood sugar levels. Using lentils in place of meat (especially low-quality or processed meats) can cut the amount of saturated fat from your diet while also supplying important nutrients.
8. Improves Immunity
Besides preventing constipation, studies now show that dietary fiber is linked to improved immunity and digestive health. Diets high in fiber are correlated with lower instances of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and various digestive disorders.
The fiber present in lentils acts as a prebiotic that helps improve gut health and maintains a healthy microflora environment. This means your digestive system is less susceptible to oxidative damage and toxins, plus better at detoxifying the body and absorbing and using available nutrients from food. In addition, lentils help prevent deficiencies in critical minerals like iron, folate, zinc and manganese that the body relies on to maintain a strong immune system.
For thousands of years, people have known that lentils are part of a healing diet. Lentils are even considered to be one of the most important Bible foods, mentioned as one of the crops that should be used to make sprouted grain bread.
Historically, Indians have been one of the largest consumers of lentils. About a quarter of the worldwide production of lentils today is from India, most of which is consumed there and never exported. Indian diets often include the staple dish called dhal or lentil curry, which is an ancient recipe and part of the everyday diet in India, eaten with both rice and roti. Lentils are also used to provide protein, make stock and thicken recipes since many Indians have historically been vegetarians.
In other parts of the world, like Israel, Ethiopia and Iran, lentils have also provided a high percentage of nutrients to growing populations. In Jewish mourning tradition, lentils are prepared for mourners together with boiled eggs, because their round shape symbolizes the life cycle from birth to death.
In Iran, lentils in the form of a stew poured over rice have provided protein and sustenance for centuries. Ethiopians have relied on lentils cooked into flat breads or stews to provide calories, fiber and protein, especially for developing babies or when food has been scarce.
How to Buy and Cook Lentils
Today, Canada, India, Turkey, Australia and the U.S. provide the world with the highest amounts of exported lentils. There are many different kinds of lentils available in markets, with colors ranging from brown to green, to yellow to red. Lentils also vary in size and whether or not they’ve been hulled (or “de-shelled”) and split.
Some of the most popular types of lentils include:
- Red (usually split and have the most earthy flavor)
- Brown/Spanish pardina lentils
- French green/puy lentils (which have a dark speckled blue-green color)
- Black (also called beluga)
- Yellow/tan lentils (which are red inside)
- And many other varieties (depending on the country)
The type of lentils you should buy depends on what you’re using them for, since different types have varying consistencies and tastes. Lentils with husks/skins remain whole when cooked and more hearty compared to lentils without husks, which tend to disintegrate into a thick purée. But since all types taste somewhat similar and provide roughly the same nutrients, you can easily sub one type out for another whenever need be.
Lentils are very easy to cook from scratch when you purchase them dried, but, of course, you can always buy them pre-cooked and canned, too, to save time and any hassle. Even canned or frozen lentils are very inexpensive and can usually be found in organic varieties too.
If you buy canned lentils, check to make sure the can hasn’t been made with BPA, a chemical commonly found in the lining of aluminum cans that’s associated with heart disease, prostate cancer, abnormal reproductive development and other health concerns.
Lentils take between 10–40 minutes to cook from scratch depending on the exact kind you buy. Split lentils cook quicker than whole lentils do, and hulled lentils cook quicker than lentils that still have their skins on. To cook dried lentils, rinse them well and discard any fragments floating around; then bring them to a boil and simmer on low. Check the lentils after 10–20 minutes and keep simmering them until they’re soft but still chewy.
Dried lentils can also be sprouted by rinsing them well and then soaking them in water for about two to three days, changing the water every 24 hours. This positively changes lentils nutrition by increasing the amount of amino acids, vitamins and minerals that the body can actually absorb from lentils, since soaking and sprouting (or fermentation) reduces antinutrients. (7)
Lentil recipes are popular throughout South Asia, the Mediterranean regions and West Asia. In most countries, they’re combined with rice to make a “complete protein,” since together these have almost all of the essential amino acids that the body must acquire from food, since it can’t produce them itself.
One of the most popular lentil and rice dishes around the world originated in Western Asia: mujaddara or mejadra. Rice and lentils are also cooked together in khichdi, a popular dish in India and Pakistan. In Egypt, lentils are a staple food used in the national dish called kushari. And across Europe (especially in France and Italy), lentils are a popular legume used in many ways, such as added to soups or eaten with pork, chicken or beef.
Not sure what to do with lentils? You basically can’t go wrong adding nutty, earthy-flavored lentils to salads, soups, stews, dips or spreads. They’re also great used in place of chopped meat in things like veggie burgers, meatloaf or meatballs. Knowing about all of the benefits of lentils nutrition, today they’re even used to make totally grain-free pasta that’s very high in both protein and fiber.
You can try replacing white beans with lentils in this recipe for Spicy Bean Dip.
- 1 15-ounce can of lentils (rinsed, save the liquid)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoon coconut aminos
- 2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon curry
- 1/4 cup of liquid from beans (add water if needed)
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- In blender, combine all ingredients. Blend until smooth.
- Serve with Mary’s Gone Crackers or fresh-cut veggies.
Other ways to take advantage of lentils nutrition benefits include:
- Making preservative-free, homemade baby food using mashed lentils
- Adding lentils to your favorite healthy soup recipes
- Using lentils in time-saving crockpot recipes
- Replacing meat or other beans in things like tacos or hummus
Are There Any Concerns with Eating Lentils?
One of the biggest issues surrounding all beans and legumes, including lentils, is that they naturally contain antinutrient factors, such as trypsin inhibitors and a relatively high phytate content. Trypsin is an enzyme involved in digestion, and phytate reduces the bioavailability of dietary minerals.
While lentils are high in iron, magnesium, potassium and other nutrients, unfortunately these are the primary minerals that don’t get absorbed due to high antinutrient levels. So lentils, like all other beans, grains and legumes, are best when soaked or sprouted. In addition to providing more absorbable nutrients, lentils are also easier to digest when soaked and sprouted, so if you have gas when eating legumes, you’ll probably feel better after trying this method.
Other factors to consider when eating lentils is that they contain lectins, which can also disturb digestion and cause problems for some people like IBS. In moderate amounts, these shouldn’t be an issue, but when someone has compromised digestion already, consumes large portions of lentils or replaces animal products with lentils and other legumes, she might start experiencing some digestive discomfort and nutrient deficiencies.
All in all, lentils are a great addition to a well-rounded diet, but be cautious if you follow a strictly plant-based diet; you want to keep an eye on your nutrient intake and consider supplementing with things like vitamin B12 and iron.
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