Lentils are small, round legumes and one of the oldest crops in existence—cultivation of lentils began thousands of years ago. Today, lentils are a popular food that play a starring role in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. These high-fiber, high-protein wonders can be stored, dry, in the pantry, for up to a year and are a favorite meatless dish among vegetarians and vegans. And, hey…lentils are good for meat eaters too!
There are several types of lentils that differ in color and texture, so let’s cozy up with some popular lentils, unearth their various health benefits, and figure out the best ways to get our lentil protein fix!
Types of Lentils
The most common varieties of lentils are:
- Brown lentils: Easily found in grocery stores, brown lentils are the most popular and can turn your vegetable soup into a protein powerhouse.
- Green lentils: Larger and flatter than brown lentils, green lentils have a cooking time of about 45 minutes, but do not break down easily, making them the perfect addition to a salad.
- French lentils: Otherwise known as Puy lentils, french green lentils are smaller and darker than green lentils, with a peppery taste that pairs well in a French lentil salad.
- Yellow lentils: The featured ingredient in Indian dal, yellow lentils are sweeter than other varieties and break down quickly.
- Red lentils: Because they’re small and cook fast, red lentils are best in soups, such as Mediterranean Red Lentil Soup.
- Black lentils: Not to be confused with black beans, these tiny black beluga lentils have a light, creamy flesh and bold, earthy flavor that goes well with sautéed vegetables, rice, and pasta.
Lentils are loaded with protein, although they don’t contain an adequate amount of all nine essential amino acids to be considered a complete protein (they are low to deficient in the essential amino acid methionine). They do provide the body with amino acids such as isoleucine and lysine, which play key roles in most biological processes in the body. Raw, sprouted lentils have more methionine than cooked lentils, so if you have high protein needs, consider consuming sprouted lentils.
Lentils also contain vitamins and minerals, such as iron. If you eat meat, you can get iron through animal protein. 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 insoluble fiber in lentils enhances the health of the digestive tract by encouraging regular bowel movements. 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.
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 3 weeks, and then 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.
The fiber contained in lentils is also associated with improved immunity and better food absorption. The immune system depends on a well-balanced gut microbiome, and the fiber in lentils acts as a prebiotic that feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut. Studies have also demonstrated that dietary fiber can affect various properties of the immune system, including those of the gut-associated lymphoid tissues (GALT), which works with the immune system to protect the body from invasion.
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 high blood pressure, which is a major cause of heart disease. A study conducted on hypertensive rats found that lentils significantly reduced 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.
Lentils contain carbohydrates, but they have a low starch content, which means they don’t spike blood sugar levels like refined grains and carbohydrates do.
One study showed that the fiber in lentils slows down digestion by trapping glucose from carbohydrates. Researchers analyzed the slowing effect of lentils on stomach emptying of solids in humans and dogs. This slowing effect may be linked to a lowering influence on postprandial glucose (the amount of glucose in the blood after a meal). All in all, the study suggests that lentils may help prevent diabetes by balancing blood sugar levels.
Weight Loss Ally
Lentils are a great choice if you want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight because they are low calorie but protein and fiber rich, 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 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 that regularly consuming pulses such as lentils lowers the risk of 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.
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 one of our favorite lentil recipes to satisfy your protein needs and your tastebuds: spicy and scrumptious Lentil Curry with Quinoa featuring Indian spices such as cumin, turmeric, and Garam Masala!