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Lentils Nutrition: Weight & Blood Sugar Supporter or Digestion Disruptor?
October 6, 2020
Lentils have been a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine for thousands of years. In fact, these pulses go back to Neolithic times and are believed to be one of the oldest crops there is.
Records show that in the Near East, they were eaten as far back as 6,000 to 13,000 years ago!
Why are lentils good for you? Benefits of lentils include the ability to improve and maintain heart health, help you to lose weight in a healthy way, support healthy blood sugar levels, and improve digestive health, too.
Today, they are enjoyed all over the world in many types of recipes. They’re one of the best all-natural meat substitutes and loved by vegetarians because they’re a great protein food, are rich in nutrients and have a hearty, dense texture.
Even though lentils nutrition benefits are so impressive, Americans typically don’t eat anywhere near the amount that many other countries do. For example, a survey done in 2002 and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association revealed that only about 8 percent of adults eat beans, lentils or other legumes on any given day despite how readily available and nutritious they are.
Is a lentil a bean? The lentil (scientific name Lens culinaris) is a member of the legume plant family and considered an edible, flattened pulse.
Lentils grow on bushy annual plants that produce edible, lens-shaped seeds within pods.
Lentils are technically a type of biconvex seed since they grow in pods. They differ in size, shape and color. Some are large and flat, while the others are smaller and round.
Are lentils a carbohydrate or a protein? They are actually a source of both, providing some plant-based protein and also some starch and fiber.
Today, Canada, India, Turkey, Australia and the U.S. provide the world with the highest amounts of exported lentils. There are many different kinds available in markets, with colors ranging from brown to green, black and red.
They also vary in size and appearance, depending on factors like whether or not they’ve been hulled (or “de-shelled”) and split.
You can find them with or without their seed coats, whole or split. These processing techniques also affect how they should be cooked.
Some of the most popular varieties of lentils include:
- Brown and green lentils are the most popular types in many countries
- Red lentils/Egyptian lentils (usually split and have the most earthy flavor)
- Brown/Spanish pardina lentils
- French green lentils/puy lentils (which have a dark, speckled, blue-green color)
- Black lentils (also called beluga lentils)
- Yellow lentils/tan lentils (which are red inside and mostly used in India to make dhal)
- Many other varieties (depending on the country)
What do they taste like? The flavor of lentils is described as being nutty and earthy.
They’re mild overall and tend to blend easily into recipes.
Lentils are considered a top “functional food” due to their high nutritive value, polyphenols, minerals, fiber and other bioactive compounds. While they’re known for providing protein and fiber, their polyphenol content is becoming the focus of ongoing research, since polyphenols are know play an important role in the prevention of degenerative diseases.
One cup (approximately 198 grams) of cooked lentils has about:
- 230 calories
- 39.9 grams carbohydrates
- 17.9 grams protein
- 0.8 gram fat
- 15.6 grams fiber
- 358 micrograms 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 milligram copper (25 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram thiamine (22 percent DV)
- 731 milligrams potassium (21 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram vitamin B6 (18 percent DV)
- 71.3 milligram magnesium (18 percent DV)
- 2.5 milligrams zinc (17 percent DV)
- 1.3 milligrams pantothenic acid (13 percent DV)
- 2.1 milligrams niacin (10 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin (9 percent DV)
- 5.5 micrograms selenium (8 percent DV)
- 3 milligrams vitamin C (5 percent DV)
As you can see from the lentil nutrition data above, it offers a wide range of important nutrients in just a one-cup serving, especially folate, manganese, iron and phosphorus.
Many people actually miss out on some key minerals provided by lentils nutrition, resulting in a legitimate iron deficiency and magnesium deficiency. This is why eating them often is a great way to cover your bases and prevent deficiencies, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.
1. Great Source of Filling Fiber
Eating a high-fiber diet that includes a variety of whole plant foods is one of the surest ways to fill up and benefit your whole body. Lentils nutrition contains both insoluble and soluble fiber. That means they make you full by expanding in the stomach and absorbing water.
Additionally, studies show that fiber from foods such as legumes can help improve heart, metabolic, digestive and immune function by carrying waste, excess fat and toxins out of the body.
New research suggest that some of the healthiest populations on Earth — such as those living in the blue zones like Italy and Greece, where more people eat a typical Mediterranean diet — regularly eat legumes/pulses and experience better overall health benefits because of it.
2. Help Protect Heart Health
When it comes to heart health, studies show that legumes are one of the best high-fiber foods for heart health.
In animal studies, they are beneficial for lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found lentils to be rich in polyphenols.
Several studies have demonstrated that the consumption of lentils is connected to reduced risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
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, they 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 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. Can Improve Digestive Health
With such high levels of dietary fiber, lentils should be on everyone’s list in order to promote regular bowel movements. Their high level of insoluble fiber absorbs water in the digestive tract, swelling up and carrying waste out of the digestive tract.
They function as a great digestive regulator and help potentially prevent constipation, symptoms associated with 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. Help Alkalize the Body and Balance 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. This is important for nutrient absorption and naturally preventing IBS, indigestion, constipation and many other diseases, too.
Eating an alkalizing diet high in plant foods may help lower the risk for problems like kidney stones, ulcers and bone loss.
5. Help Manage Blood Sugar Levels
Research indicates that the high level of soluble fiber found in legumes traps glucose from carbohydrates and slows down digestion. This means they can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
That is important for preventing energy dips, mood changes, and serious conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia.
One of the keys attributes of lentils nutrition is the low starch content. They 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.
In one 2018 study, replacing half of participants’ high-glycemic foods with lentils led to significant improvements in blood sugar management, since they had a natural blood glucose-lowering effect. Another study demonstrated that various lentil foods prepared with different processing methods (boiling, pureeing, freezing, roasting, spray-drying) all had positive impacts on post-prandial blood glucose response compared to potato-based products.
6. High Source of Plant-Based Protein
Lentils are considered one of the best sources of plant-based protein. They have the third-highest level of protein by weight of any legume or nut, coming just after soybeans and hemp seeds.
As a high-protein food, they contain about 18 grams of protein in every one-cup serving — the equivalent to eating about three whole eggs!
For vegetarians, beans, dhals and lentils have long been considered important sources of nutrition. They provide protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins all year long, as they are shelf-stable.
You can use them in place of meat in many recipes, whether you eat meat or not, in order to increase fiber and nutrient intake. You may even find lentil seeds in things like plant-based protein powders, since studies show they are an excellent source of essential amino acids on par with animal and soybean proteins.
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.
They’re also dirt cheap and very versatile. A big batch of dry lentils costs only dollars.
That makes them 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.
7. Can Help You Lose Weight
Why are lentils good for weight loss? With 15 grams of fiber in every one-cup serving, they’re one of the most filling, “stick-to-your-ribs” foods there is.
They are low in calories but high in protein and fiber. This 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 pulse consumption and a healthy body weight and a lowered risk for obesity.
8. Improve Immunity and Gut Health
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 pulses 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.
New research also shows that diets high in pulses can positively impact colon and gut health, leading to positive changes like decreased body weight, percent body fat and plasma triacylglycerols. In one study conducted on rats, red lentils positively altered colonic microenvironment (microbiota composition and activity and epithelial barrier integrity and function).
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.
How to Cook
New to cooking lentils? The good news is that they’re easy to cook from scratch when you purchase them dried.
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.
- Can you eat lentils raw? This is not a good idea, since raw pulses and legumes in general are very difficult to digest. You’ll want to always cook lentils first.
- If you buy them canned, 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 some ill effects.
- Typical cook times needed to make lentils range from about 10 to 40 minutes. The exact cook time depends on the specific type and whether the lentils have been soaked or not.
- Split lentils cook quicker than whole lentils, and hulled lentils cook quicker than those that still have their skins on. To cook them if they’re dried, rinse them well and discard any fragments floating around. Then bring them to a boil and simmer on low. Check them 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. According to a 2020 study, this positively changes lentils nutrition by increasing the amount of amino acids, vitamins and minerals that the body can actually absorb, since soaking and sprouting (or fermentation) reduces antinutrients.
Lentils are available in most grocery stores, health food stores, “bulk bin” markets and many ethnic markets (such as those that carry ingredients popular in Indian, African or Middle Eastern cuisine).
The type of lentils you should buy depends on what you’re using them for. Different types have varying consistencies and tastes.
Lentils with husks/skins remain whole when cooked and hold their shape well. They are more hearty compared to those 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.
According to traditional systems of medicine, such as Ayurveda, in which pulses have been consumed for centuries, here are some other ways you can cook lentils in order to improve digestion and nutrient absorption:
- Eat well-cooked lentils, which are easier to break down.
- Add spices, such as cumin, black pepper, turmeric and ginger.
- Store dried lentils in airtight containers at room temperature. Try to use them within six months.
- Do not add salt or acidic ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice until they are cooked.
- 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.
What can you do with cooked lentils? You basically can’t go wrong adding them to veggie burgers, side dishes like 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.
Here are some healthy recipes to get you started:
- You can try replacing white beans with lentils in this recipe for Spicy Bean Dip
- Making preservative-free, homemade baby food using mashed lentils
- Making lentil soup or adding some to your other favorite healthy soup recipes
- Using lentils in time-saving crockpot recipes
- Replacing meat or other beans in things like taco salad or hummus
Risks and Side Effects
Why do some think that lentils are bad for you? One of the biggest issues surrounding all pulses and legumes 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.
Another factor 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, large portions of lentils may trigger digestive discomfort.
As mentioned above, pulses and legumes are best when soaked or sprouted. In addition to providing more absorbable nutrients, they’re easier to digest this way and likely cause less gas.
- The lentil (Lens culinaris) is a member of the legume plant family and considered an edible, flattened pulse. Types of lentils include green, brown, red and black lentils.
- Lentils nutrition is a good source of polyphenols, folate, manganese, iron, copper, thiamine, phosphorus and more.
- Lentils nutrition benefits include providing fiber and protein, protecting heart health, improving digestion, managing blood sugar levels, balancing the body’s pH, supporting weight loss, and boosting immunity/gut health.
- Making them from scratch (dried) takes about 10 to 40 minutes depending on the variety. You can also use canned or frozen lentils in things like side dishes, on salads, in veggie burgers, in soups and stews, and more.