Nutrition & Benefits Of Lentils: The Gut-Friendly Legume That's Super Easy To Cook
Darcy McDonough is the associate health editor at mbg. She has a master’s degree in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Lately, lentils have been popping up in everything from pasta to chips, even snagging a starring role in our favorite salads. But it turns out this new carb chameleon isn't so new after all. Lentils are an ancient edible seed in the legume family that humans have been harvesting for thousands of years. High in fiber, folate, and plant protein, and boasting health benefits from lowering cholesterol to improving digestion, lentils, it's no wonder, have had staying power.
Here, we break down everything you need to know about the nutrients, cooking methods, and health benefits of lentils.
Nutritional profile of lentils.
You may have seen a bag of these pebble-like dried seeds in the grocery store or noticed them on the menu at your favorite Indian spot, but what exactly are lentils? Similar to chickpeas, beans, and peas, lentils are a delicious and nutrient-packed seed in the legume plant family. Lentils can be found in many varieties, including green lentils, red lentils, puy lentils, and black lentils, each with varying textures and flavors. Traditionally used in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mediterranean cuisine, lentils are known for their somewhat nutty flavor, versatility, and many health benefits. One cup of lentils packs about:
Lentils are also a great source of "good" complex carbohydrates (as opposed to refined carbohydrates), which means your body digests them more slowly. This helps keep you feeling full and energized, promotes balanced blood sugar, and may benefit your overall digestion.
5 health benefits of lentils.
Lentils are one of the oldest known crops—and for good reason. Those little seeds pack some major benefits. Lentils have been touted for doing everything from lowering cholesterol and promoting weight loss to enhancing hair growth and digestion. Here are some of the top science-backed health benefits of lentils:
1. Lentils contain loads of gut-friendly fiber.
With 15 grams of fiber per cup, it's no surprise that lentils are great for your gut. As Vincent Pedre, M.D., integrative physician and author of Happy Gut, explains, "Getting insufficient dietary fiber adversely shifts your healthy gut flora, which will increase inflammation, insulin resistance, fat deposition around the middle, and weight gain." A cup of lentils provides more than half your recommended daily intake (RDI) of fiber, and they're a great source of soluble fiber, some of which is considered prebiotic fiber.
Prebiotics, which may be just as important for your gut as probiotics, are what our friendly gut bacteria feed on. This type of fiber, also found in foods like beans, garlic, onions, jicama, and more, promotes the proliferation and survival of this good bacteria and keeps your microbiome happy. Maintaining good gut health can positively affect everything from your bowel movements to appetite regulation to mood.
2. Lentils may help lower cholesterol.
The soluble fiber found in lentils is not only beneficial for gut health, but it can even help lower your LDL cholesterol levels. During digestion, soluble fiber binds with bile salts in the gut, eventually exiting the body with them. To replace these lost bile salts, the body must make more, and cholesterol is a key ingredient in this. Cholesterol is pulled from the bloodstream for bile salt production, effectively lowering LDL levels. In fact, one study found that adding just one serving of lentils to your diet per day could lower LDL cholesterol by as much as 5%.
Additionally, lentils can be a great meat replacement if you're looking to reduce your intake of dietary cholesterol or saturated fat. Due to their high protein content and hearty texture, many vegetarian recipes lean on lentils. Try swapping the beef in Bolognese sauce with green lentils, or toss lentils into your favorite burger patties for a delicious and easy way to boost your intake of heart-healthy fiber.
3. Lentils contain a key nutrient for healthy pregnancy (and lots of it).
You probably know that B vitamins, especially folate and its supplemental form folic acid, are super important during pregnancy. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges all women of childbearing age to get 400 mcg of folic acid every day—even if they aren't trying to conceive. This is because consuming enough folic acid before and during pregnancy can prevent neural tube disorders and other major birth defects.
Neural tube disorders occur within the first 28 days of development, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant, so staying on top of folate consumption is crucial. Lentils are a delicious way to keep your folate levels in check without even thinking about it. Just 1 cup of lentils contains 90% (or 358 mcg) of the RDI of folate.
Of course, if you're pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you'll need to think about a lot more than just adding lentils to your diet. Consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian about how to best formulate your diet (a Mediterranean-style diet is often recommended but definitely not your only option) and what type of supplementation may be necessary.
4. Lentils are a great source of plant-based iron.
In addition to high folate levels, lentils are also a good source of plant-based (non-heme) iron. Iron is essential for red blood cell production and transporting oxygen throughout the body, and it's particularly important during pregnancy. This is because during pregnancy, blood production and volume increase by up to 50% to support the growing fetus. If you are not consuming adequate levels of iron to meet the increased demand, it can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, and premature delivery. Focusing on getting adequate iron through your diet is also important if you have heavy periods, as you may lose a significant amount of iron via menstruation each month. Lentils provide about 40% (or 6.6 mg) of your RDI of iron; however, it's not as readily absorbed by your body as animal-based (heme) iron. Vitamin C has been shown to boost absorption of iron from plant foods. Good thing vitamin-C-rich foods like tomatoes, red bell peppers, and lemon juice all pair nicely with cooked lentils!
5. Lentils contain nutrients that promote healthy skin, hair, and nails.
The nutrient composition of lentils makes them particularly well suited for supporting the growth of healthy skin, hair, and nails. The protein, iron, and B vitamins in lentils all play an important role here. Hair, skin, and nails are made up of a hard protein called keratin. So, consuming adequate protein, in general, is crucial for keratin production, especially the amino acid L-lysine. L-lysine is an essential amino acid found in lentils, eggs, and nuts that has been shown to help prevent excessive hair shedding among women prone to the condition.
Getting enough dietary iron from food sources such as lentils can also help ensure strong hair, skin, and nails. In addition to helping prevent anemia, iron is necessary for healthy cell production and growth. In fact, signs of iron deficiency include brittle hair, pale skin, and weak nails.
Lentils are also a great source of B vitamins, including vitamin B7, also known as biotin. Will Cole, D.C., IFMPC, explains, "Biotin is right there at the front line to fight the effects of aging with its role in fatty acid synthesis, which is crucial for healthy skin." Biotin has even been nicknamed "vitamin H" due to its role in hair health.
Important to note, though, is that the ability of lentils to help you achieve any of the above perks also depends on the composition of your overall diet. You want to focus on eating a combination of nutrient-rich, minimally processed whole foods, including a whole lot of plants—and lentils can be a very healthy addition to this type of diet.
Do lentils have any downsides?
Lentils can be a great addition to nearly anyone's diet, but lentils (along with all legumes and some other foods such as whole grains, seeds, and nightshade vegetables) do contain lectins—a type of plant protein that some health experts, including Steven Gundry, M.D., say those who have sensitivities are better off avoiding. According to Gundry, lectins may promote inflammation and damage the gut in those individuals, contributing to conditions such as IBS and brain fog.
These side effects may not occur in everyone, though, so your best bet is to assess how you feel after eating lectin-containing foods like legumes. If you consistently feel sick, consider scaling back or eliminating lectins. If you feel OK, you're probably in the clear. You can also drastically reduce the lectin content of legumes and grains by cooking them in a pressure cooker.
How to cook with lentils.
Lentils can seem intimidating at first, but they're easy to add to any dish.
Lentils are typically sold dry, but unlike dry beans, there's no need to soak them before cooking—just a quick rinse will do. Either pop them in your pressure cooker or cover your lentils with water and simmer for about 20 minutes. Depending on the variety you are working with, you may want them still slightly chewy for green and black lentils or soft and soupy for red lentils. Consult the recipe to determine the best cook time to get the texture you are looking for.
Try experimenting with the different types of lentils by tossing yellow lentil croutons on your next salad, whipping up some lentil and veggie soup, or making the traditional Indian red lentil dal. As mentioned above, you can also incorporate cooked lentils into your next beef burger or keep it completely plant-based and whip up a delicious veggie burger with a combo of lentils, chickpea flour, and sunflower seeds. There's a whole lot you can make with this protein-rich legume!
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