Lentils are a high protein, high fiber member of the legume family. Like a mini version of a bean, lentils grow in pods and can be found in red, brown, black, and green varieties.
Lentils are relatively quick and easy to prepare when compared to other dried beans, and their low cost makes them an accessible form of high-quality protein for many people around the world.
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods. It provides a nutritional breakdown of lentils and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, how to incorporate more lentils into your diet and any potential health risks of consuming lentils.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on lentils
Here are some key points about lentils. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
Lentils are an excellent source of dietary folate.
Nutritional breakdown of lentils
One cup of cooked lentils contains:
- 230 calories
- 18 grams of protein
- 1 gram of fat
- 40 grams of carbohydrates (including 16 grams of fiber and 4 grams of sugar)
That same 1 cup serving provides the following proportion of your daily intake:
- 90 percent of folate
- 37 percent of iron
- 49 percent of manganese
- 36 percent of phosphorus
- 22 percent of thiamin
- 21 percent of potassium
- 18 percent of vitamin B6
Lentils are also a source of riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.
Possible health benefits of consuming lentils
Consuming plant-based foods of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions.
Many studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant foods like lentils decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and overall mortality while promoting a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight.
The fiber, folic acid, and potassium in lentils all support heart health. According to the American Heart Association, increased fiber intake can reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels beyond what can be achieved by a diet low in saturated and trans fats alone.
Not only is fiber associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, but also with a slower progression of the disease in high-risk individuals.
Lentils add essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber to the diet, while also providing protein and sustenance to replace meat in meals. When meat, a major source of saturated and trans fats in the diet, is replaced with a higher fiber food like lentils, the risk for heart disease is further decreased. The United States Surgeon General has recommended lowering meat consumption by 15 percent.
The potassium, calcium, and magnesium in lentils have been found to decrease blood pressure naturally. Fewer than 2 percent of US adults currently meet the daily 4,700 mg recommendation for potassium.
Folate is critical for the prevention of birth defects and has been shown to cut the chances of early delivery by 50 percent or more if consumed for at least a year before pregnancy.
The Center for Disease Control recommends consuming 400 micrograms of folic acid every day specifically for women of childbearing years. One cup of lentils provides almost 90 percent of your folate needs for the entire day.
Selenium is a mineral found in lentils that is not present in most other foods. Selenium prevents inflammation, decreases tumor growth rates, and improves immune response to infection by stimulating production of killer T-cells. It also plays a role in liver enzyme function and helps detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body.
The fiber in lentils is also associated with a lowered risk of colorectal cancer.
Iron deficiency is a common cause of fatigue. Women aged 18-50 are particularly susceptible to iron deficiency. Not getting enough iron in your diet can affect how efficiently your body uses energy. Lentils are a great non-heme source of iron and contain over 1/3 of your daily iron needs in one cup (cooked).
Digestion, regularity, and satiety
Adequate fiber intake is commonly recognized as an important factor in weight loss by functioning as a "bulking agent" in the digestive system. Fiber in the diet helps to increase satiety and reduce appetite, making you feel fuller for longer with the goal of lowering your overall calorie intake.
The high fiber in lentils also helps to prevent constipation and promote regularity for a healthy digestive tract.
How to incorporate more lentils into your diet
Unlike dried beans, lentils do not require soaking. Rinse away any dirt from the lentils and discard any damaged lentils or foreign material. Place the lentils into a pot and add 2 cups of water for every cup of lentils.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer to desired tenderness, typically about 15 to 20 minutes. One cup of dried lentils will yield 2-2 ½ cups of cooked lentils.
There are four main types of lentils:
- Brown lentils are the least expensive and soften the most upon cooking; they are best used in soups in stews.
- Green lentils have a nuttier flavor. They stay firm when cooked and make great salad or taco toppers.
- Red lentils have a more mild taste and cook the fastest. They are typically used in Indian dals and purees.
- Black lentils, also known as beluga lentils for their resemblance to caviar when cooked.
- Add lentils to any soup or stew recipe to add extra nutrients and fiber
- Precook lentils and keep in your refrigerator for a quick protein source
- Use lentils in place of beans in any recipe
- Make a lentil dip by smashing cooked lentils with a fork and adding garlic, onion, chili powder, and chopped tomatoes
- Be on the lookout for new snacks like lentil-based crackers, chips, or crisps
Potential health risks of consuming lentils
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with a variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Consuming large amounts of fiber may cause flatulence. Be sure to drink plenty of liquids as you increase your fiber intake. Do not try to get all of your fiber at one time, get a small amount at each meal or snack.
Gradually increase your fiber intake for 1 or 2 months to help prevent digestive discomfort as your body adjusts to the change. Increasing fiber intake without adequate fluid intake could lead to constipation.