Lentils are small, round legumes. There are several varieties that differ in color and texture. Lentils are highly nutritious, and they can be stored, dry, in the pantry, for a long time. This legume is one of the oldest crops—cultivation of lentils began thousands of years ago. Today, lentils are a popular food, especially in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. Lentils are one of the favorite foods of vegetarians and vegans because they’re high in protein and filling. And, hey…lentils are good for meat eaters, too!
Types of Lentils
The most common varieties of lentils are:
- Brown lentils: most popular type; you can easily find it in grocery stores.
- Green lentils: larger and flatter than brown lentils; do not break down easily.
- French lentils: smaller, darker than green lentils, cooking time more than 30 minutes.
- Yellow lentils: sweeter than other varieties, break down quickly.
- Red lentils: small and cook fast.
- Black lentils: small, flesh is light and creamy.
Lentils are loaded with protein. They do not contain all the essential amino acids, but they can provide the body with amino acids such as isoleucine and lysine, which play key roles in most biological processes in the body. Experts recommend that you eat lentils after they have sprouted because, at that stage, they contain the essential amino acid methionine, which is crucial for muscle strength.
Lentils also contain vitamins and minerals, such as iron. If you eat meat, you can get iron through animal protein. If you do not eat meat, keep in mind that the recommended daily intakes for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than the RDIs for people who eat meat. Lentils are also high in fiber and folate.
Health Benefits of Lentils
Lentils are high in protein and low in sodium and fat. For this reason, they are considered a nutritious food that offers several health benefits.
The fiber in lentils enhances the health of the digestive tract. A team of researchers analyzed the effect of green lentils on colonic function, nitrogen balance, and serum lipids. The study involved nine healthy males in their 20s and 30s who consumed a controlled Western diet for three weeks, and the same diet supplemented with 130 grams of lentils. By analyzing feces and blood, scientists discovered that lentils increased fecal weight and fecal nitrogen. The team concluded that green lentils play a key role in a healthy diet because they may help prevent constipation, diarrhea, and inflammatory bowel disease. Lentils are an alkaline protein source, which means they can help regulate the digestive system, especially when it becomes too acidic—acidity usually comes from eating fried foods or foods high in sugar.
The fiber contained in lentils is also associated with improved immunity. Studies demonstrated that dietary fiber can affect various properties of the immune system, including those of the gut-associated lymphoid tissues (GALT). GALT is a component that works in the immune system to protect the body from invasion in the gut. The fiber acts as a prebiotic by enhancing gut health and maintaining a healthy microbiome. This means that the digestive system is less exposed to toxins and can better absorb nutrients from food. Lentils also contain minerals, such as iron, folate, zinc, and manganese, that the body uses to maintain a strong immune system.
Lentils can help to reduce hypertension, which is a major cause of cardiovascular disease. A study conducted on hypertensive rats found that lentils significantly reduced some of the causes of heart disease. The rats were fed diets containing lentils, and the results showed a significant decrease in blood pressure and bad cholesterol.
Lentils can also support a healthy diet because they are low in both fat and sodium. A diet high in sodium increases blood pressure because salt holds excess fluid in the body; the heart struggles to work, and the risk of stroke and heart failure increases. A diet high in certain types of fat can also increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. The folate, magnesium, and potassium contained in lentils can help to lower homocysteine levels, which play a role in the development of heart disease, and these nutrients can also improve circulation.
A study found that the fiber in lentils slows down digestion by trapping glucose from carbohydrates. Researchers analyzed the slowing effect of lentils on gastric emptying of solids in humans and dogs. This slowing effect on gastric emptying may be associated with a lowering effect on postprandial glucose. The study suggests that lentils may help prevent diabetes by balancing blood sugar levels. Lentils contain carbohydrates, but they have low starch content, which means they have a lower impact on blood sugar levels compared to refined grains and carbohydrates.
Weight Loss Ally
Lentils are a great choice if you want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight because they are low in calories but high in protein and fiber, which contribute to satiety. If you eat lentils, you will be less inclined to overeat or snack throughout the day, lowering the potential for weight gain.
Studies on pulse consumption, satiety, and weight management highlighted the role of lentils in a healthy diet. A pulse, also called grain legume or pulse grain, is a type of legume that is exclusively harvested for the dry grain, such as lentils. This definition excludes peanuts and soybeans, which are harvested for their oil. The results of these studies showed an inverse relationship between pulse consumption and risk for obesity.
Lentils are an excellent source of folate, which is crucial in the diet of pregnant women because it may help to prevent birth defects. According to a study conducted on rats, a lack of folate or folic acid (folate created in labs to be added to supplements), often leads to neural tube defects. Folate contained in lentils supports the formation of red blood cells and is essential for the biosynthesis and repair of DNA.
Studies on the role of lectins as a cancer treatment showed that this unique group of proteins which occur in foods such as lentils can have an impact on cancer cells. Researchers found that several lectins possess anti-cancer properties.
Lentils also have antioxidant properties. Studies have shown that lentils can provide the body with antioxidants that lower the risk of developing atherosclerosis. Antioxidants also play a crucial role in the fight against free radicals, which damage healthy cells.
A study on the effects of nutrients on the nervous system revealed that fiber is associated with higher alertness ratings and less perceived stress. Based on these results, lentils may also be helpful in maintaining a healthy brain.
Cooking with Lentils
Lentils are easy to cook, but cooking times vary depending on the type of lentils. You can always buy pre-cooked lentils, but remember to read labels to make sure they do not contain high levels of sodium and that the can has not been made with BPA, a chemical associated with heart disease and other health conditions.
If you want to cook dried lentils, rinse them, bring them to a boil, and simmer. You can also soak them in water the night before to make them softer. Brown lentils are the most versatile type; they can be used for soups, stews, and salads. If you are looking for lentils that remain firm for salads, green lentils are the perfect choice because they do not break down easily when you mix and stir. If you like creamy soups and prefer lentils that get very soft during the cooking process, opt for yellow lentils. Red lentils are also an excellent choice when you want to make a smooth puree.
Check out this spicy and scrumptious Lentil Curry with Quinoa recipe to satisfy your protein needs and your tastebuds!