Lentils belong to the legume family. They resemble a tiny bean, grow in pods, and come in red, brown, black, and green varieties. They also contain high levels of protein and fiber.
Lentils are relatively quick and easy to prepare, and their low cost makes them an accessible form of high quality protein for many people around the world.
In this article, we look at how lentils can boost health, investigate their nutritional content, and look at ways to incorporate them into a balanced diet.
Consuming all types of plant based foods has associations with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions.
A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that people who eat more healthful plant foods have a lower chance of dying from cardiovascular disease and all causes.
Plant based foods often provide a wide range of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and may contain antioxidant properties. Antioxidants work against free radicals, which are compounds in the body that may contribute to inflammation and cancer.
Not only does fiber have links to a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, but it might slow the progression of the disease in high risk individuals.
Lentils add essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber to the diet. They also provide protein and are an excellent replacement for meat in meals.
When a person replaces meat in the diet with a high fiber food, such as lentils, they decrease their risk of heart disease.
Studies have found that the potassium, calcium, and magnesium in lentils can decrease blood pressure naturally. Foods high in these minerals form a key part of the DASH eating plan. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommend this diet for bringing down blood pressure.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lentils are one of the best food sources for potassium.
Lentils provide a large amount of folate.
Folate is critical for preventing neural tube defects in newborns.
This essential vitamin can also reduce the risk of gestational diabetes. A 2019 study of 14,553 pregnant women found that those who took more folate during pregnancy were less likely to develop gestational diabetes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that females of childbearing age consume a minimum of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate or folic acid every day. The CDC advise that women increase intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Lentils also provide selenium.
Selenium may decrease the rates that tumors grow. It may also improve a person’s immune response to infection by stimulating the production of T cells. T cells kill disease.
The NIH note that selenium may help reduce rates of colorectal, prostate, lung, bladder, skin, esophageal, and gastric cancers.
However, scientists must carry out further research into the cancer preventing benefits of selenium, as studies on the mineral have, so far, produced mixed results.
Iron deficiency is a common cause of fatigue. Not getting enough iron in the diet can affect how efficiently the body uses energy. There are two types of iron: heme and nonheme.
Plants provide nonheme iron, and lentils are a particularly good source.
Meat and fish provide heme iron.
Nonheme iron is an essential form of iron for people who do not consume meat for health or other reasons. However, the body cannot absorb nonheme iron as well as heme iron. So, try combining it with vitamin C rich foods, such as citrus, berries, and peppers, which will improve absorption.
Digestion, regularity, and satiety
Adequate fiber intake serves as an important factor in weight loss by functioning as a “bulking agent” in the digestive system.
Fiber in the diet helps to increase the feeling of fullness and reduce appetite. This can reduce a person’s overall calorie intake.
The high fiber content in lentils also helps keep the digestive tract healthy, which in turn, prevents constipation and promotes regular bowel movements.
Lentils are a highly nutritious food. They are rich in minerals, protein, and fiber.
100 grams (g) of cooked lentils contains:
- 116 calories (kcal)
- 9.02 g of protein
- 0.38 g of fat
- 20.13 g of carbohydrates, including 7.9 g of fiber and 1.8 g of sugar
Lentils also provide the following essential nutrients:
- vitamin B-6
Lentils are also a source of:
- pantothenic acid
There are three main types of lentils in the United States. These include:
- Brown lentils: These have a mild, earthy flavor, hold their shape well, but will become mushy when overcooked. These work great in soups and as a stand-alone side. They range in color from light brown to black.
- French green, or Puy, lentils: These have a peppery taste and a crunchy texture that can make for a satisfying salad.
- Red lentils: These are common in Middle Eastern or Indian cuisine and are actually brown Massor lentils after the removal of their hulls.
Other types include black Beluga lentils, which resemble caviar, and are more expensive. White lentils, which are black lentils without the hull, and Macachiados lentils, which have a distinctive strong, nutty taste and often feature in Mexican dishes.
People can use brown, green, or red lentils in their diet in a variety of ways.
- Brown lentils are the cheapest and soften the most upon cooking. They work best in soups and stews.
- Green lentils have a nuttier flavor. They stay firm when cooked and make good salad or taco toppers.
- Red lentils have a milder taste. They are great for bulking out Indian dals and purees and are also soft when cooked.
Unlike dried beans, lentils do not require soaking. People should rinse away any dirt from the lentils and discard any damaged lentils or foreign material.
People can include lentils in their diet in the following simple and tasty ways:
- Add lentils to any soup or stew recipe for extra nutrients and fiber.
- Precook lentils, and keep them in the refrigerator for a quick protein source.
- Use lentils instead of beans in any recipe.
- Replace half the meat in a Bolognese sauce or lasagna with red lentils.
- Make a lentil dip by smashing cooked lentils with a fork and adding garlic, onion, chili powder, and chopped tomatoes.
- Look out for new snacks and foods, such as lentil based crackers or chips and lentil pasta.
Consuming large amounts of fiber may cause flatulence and constipation.
Any person increasing their fiber intake should:
- drink plenty of liquids to prevent constipation
- consume small amounts of fiber at each meal
- gradually increase their intake over 1–2 months
These tips can help prevent digestive discomfort as the body adjusts to the fiber increase.
Lentils also contain fermentable carbohydrates (FODMAPs), which may lead to digestive symptoms in those who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Canned lentils are low in FODMAPs, and people with IBS typically tolerate them.
Are lentils more healthful than beans?
Lentils have very similar health benefits as beans, but they have a few advantages. They are lower in phytates than beans. Phytates, decrease the body’s ability to absorb micronutrients.
In fact, red lentils may have less than 50% of the phytates than some low phytate varieties of corn, wheat, beans, and soybeans. Most people can include both beans and lentils in a healthful diet, and people on a low FODMAP diet can tolerate canned lentils well.
Another advantage that lentils have over beans is that they do not need soaking, so do not take so long to prepare.
Natalie Butler, RD, LD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.