Lentils, tiny yet mighty legumes, have been a staple in diets worldwide for thousands of years. These unassuming legumes pack a nutritional punch that's hard to beat.
Last year, my husband had a health scare, which resulted in the removal of his gallbladder and orders from the doctor to lose weight and clean up his diet. This turned out to be a culinary opportunity for me. I turned to lentils and beans as fiber-rich sources of protein.
The more I cook with them, the more I love them. When I started cooking with them, I knew they were "healthy" but had no idea of all the different health benefits of lentils. I have become a complete legum geek! So, let's dive into the studies and research supporting this superfood's claims.
Scientific name: Lens culinaris.
Lentils come in various forms, with green, brown, red, and black being the most common types in your local grocery store. However, there are over 50 different lentil varieties cultivated around the world.
Beyond their delightful taste and distinctive shape, lentils are a rich source of essential nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and potassium, contributing to their incredible health benefits.
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While different types of lentils will have slight variations of nutrition, 1 cup of cooked lentils will provide the following daily value (according to the USDA)
- 230 Calories
- 39.9 grams of Carbohydrate
- 17.9 grams of Protein
- 0.8 grams of Fat
- 15.6 grams of Fiber
- Thiamine: 28% of the DV
- Niacin: 13% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 21% of the DV
- Folate: 90% of the DV
- Pantothenic acid: 25% of the DV
- Iron: 37% of the DV
- Magnesium: 17% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 28% of the DV
- Potassium: 16% of the DV
- Zinc: 23% of the DV
- Copper: 55% of the DV
- Manganese: 43% of the DV
High Protein Content
For those seeking a meat substitute, lentils are an ideal choice. Their hearty texture and earthy flavor make them versatile in various dishes, from soups and stews to burgers and meatless meatballs. Whether you're a committed vegetarian or simply looking to reduce your meat intake, lentils offer a satisfying, protein-packed alternative that doesn't compromise taste or nutrition.
While lentils are good sources of protein, they are not complete sources of protein. They do not have all nine essential amino acids your body needs. You can ensure you get all the essential amino acids in your diet by pairing lentils with grains like rice, barley, corn, and wheat- which have complementary proteins. (3)
High in Iron
Lentils can also help address iron deficiency, a common concern, especially for individuals following plant-based diets. Iron is essential for carrying oxygen in the blood and supporting overall energy levels. Unfortunately, plant-based sources of iron, known as non-heme iron, are not as readily absorbed by the body as heme iron found in animal products.(4)
However, lentils contain a significant amount of non-heme iron, and their high vitamin C content helps enhance iron absorption. By consuming lentils alongside vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits or bell peppers, you can optimize your body's iron absorption, mitigating the risk of iron deficiency. (5)
High in Fiber
Lentils are not only a remarkable source of protein but are also exceptionally high in dietary Fiber. These unassuming legumes boast an impressive fiber content that brings many health benefits.
On average, a one-cup serving of cooked lentils provides approximately 15.6 grams of dietary Fiber, which accounts for nearly 60% of the recommended daily intake for adults. This substantial fiber content is one of the key reasons lentils are celebrated for their contribution to digestive health.
Fiber plays a pivotal role in maintaining the proper functioning of the digestive system. It aids in preventing constipation, promotes regular bowel movements, and supports a healthy gut microbiome. Lentils act as a natural cleanser for the digestive tract, helping to efficiently remove waste and toxins from the body. (6)
Fiber's influence goes beyond just digestive health; it also plays a crucial role in regulating blood sugar levels. Lentils, with their low glycemic index, are absorbed gradually in the bloodstream, resulting in a steady release of glucose. (7)
Polyphenols in Lentils
Some of the polyphenols found in lentils, such as procyanidin and flavonols, are celebrated for their potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects. They are natural defenders against oxidative stress and inflammation, crucial factors in various chronic diseases. Notably, in laboratory settings, polyphenols from lentils demonstrated the ability to impede cancer cell growth, particularly on cancerous skin cells. (9)
While the exact mechanisms remain a subject of ongoing research, these polyphenols could potentially play a role in modulating blood sugar levels. Initial studies, including an animal study, have hinted at the potential of lentils to improve glycemic control, and these benefits seem to extend beyond the macronutrient composition of carbs, proteins, or fats. (7)
It's imperative to acknowledge that the current findings primarily stem from laboratory and animal studies, underscoring the need for human research to establish concrete conclusions regarding these promising health benefits. While the potential of lentil polyphenols holds excellent promise, further investigation will shed more light on their role in enhancing human well-being. (10)
Regarding matters of the heart, few foods can rival the heart-healthy benefits of lentils. These unassuming legumes are delicious and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by managing weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. (8, 11)
Eating lentils is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, positively affecting several risk factors. Consuming lentils can significantly contribute to heart health. Their fiber content helps lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease. Additionally, lentils' potassium content supports healthy blood pressure, benefiting cardiovascular health. With these attributes, lentils stand as a robust defense against cardiovascular diseases. (12)
Lentils are not just beneficial for the heart; they also play a role in weight management. The combination of protein and Fiber in lentils makes them an ideal choice for those looking to maintain a healthy weight. These legumes keep you feeling full and satisfied, reducing the likelihood of overeating. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of heart disease, so incorporating lentils into your diet may help decrease overall food intake, contributing to weight loss or maintenance. Lentils are incredibly filling and are known to keep blood sugar levels steady, further supporting their role in weight management.
Cholesterol: Balancing the Scales
As part of a balanced diet, they have been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol levels, improving the overall cholesterol profile and reducing the risk of heart disease. Research has even demonstrated that regular consumption of lentils can increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and significantly reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. (13)
Blood Pressure: Keeping It in Check
Potassium, abundant in lentils, is essential for regulating blood pressure. A potassium-rich diet helps counteract the effects of sodium, contributing to better blood pressure control and ultimately benefiting cardiovascular health. Furthermore, proteins in lentils may block the angiotensin I-converting enzyme, which usually triggers blood vessel constriction and raises blood pressure, making lentils an essential ally in the fight against hypertension. (14)
Excellent Source of Folate:
Lentils offer a bonus benefit for heart health by being an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin crucial for various bodily functions, including DNA synthesis and repair. Adequate folate intake is essential during pregnancy, as it helps prevent congenital disabilities. Lentils also play a role in reducing excess homocysteine levels, another risk factor for heart disease, which can increase when your dietary folate intake is insufficient. (8)
A noteworthy point is that the health-promoting properties of lentil polyphenols appear to withstand the rigors of cooking, assuring that their benefits remain intact even when incorporated into a variety of dishes. (9)
Antinutrients May Impair Nutrients
While lentils offer numerous health benefits, they also contain antinutrients, such as phytic acid, lectins, and tannins, which can hinder the absorption of certain minerals like iron and zinc. However, these effects can be minimized through proper preparation methods, such as soaking and cooking. (15,16,17)
For Love of Lentils
Are you looking for lentil recipes? I have so many to share with you!!!
Brown Lentils/ Green Lentils
French Lentils/ Puy Lentils
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Quantitative Estimation of Protein in Sprouts of Vigna radiate (Mung Beans), Lens culinaris (Lentils), and Cicer arietinum (Chickpeas) by Kjeldahl and Lowry Methods. Nayab Batool Rizvi, Samina Aleem, Mohammad Rizwan Khan, Sadia Ashraf, and Rosa Busquets
- Seed Protein of Lentils: Current Status, Progress, and Food Applications. Hamid Khazaei, Maya Subedi, Mike Nickerson, Cristina Martínez-Villaluenga, Juana Frias, and Albert Vandenberg
- The effect of vegetarian diets on iron status in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lisa M Haider, Lukas Schwingshackl, Georg Hoffmann, Cem Ekmekcioglu
- Biochemistry, Iron Absorption. Thomas Ems; Kayla St Lucia; Martin R. Huecker.
- Cooked Red Lentils Dose-Dependently Modulate the Colonic Microenvironment in Healthy C57Bl/6 Male Mice. Daniela Graf, Jennifer M. Monk, Dion Lepp, Wenqing Wu, Laurel McGillis, Kyle Roberton, Yolanda Brummer, Susan M. Tosh, and Krista A. Power
- Effects of cooked lentils on glycemic control and blood lipids of patients with type 2 diabetes. Hamidreza Shams, Farideh Tahbaz, Mohammad Hassan Entezari
- Polyphenol-Rich Lentils and Their Health Promoting Effects. Kumar Ganesan and Baojun Xu
- Influence of Processing in the Phenolic Composition and Health-Promoting Properties of Lentils (Lens culinaris L.). A. López, T. El-Naggar, M. Dueñas, T. Ortega, I. Estrella, T. Hernández, M.P. Gómez-Serranillos, O.M. Palomino, M.E. Carretero
- Low glycemic load diets protect against metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes mellitus in the male Nile rat. Julia Bolsinger, Michelle Landstrom, Andrzej Pronczuk, Andrew Auerbach, KC Hayes
- Lentil Sprouts Effect On Serum Lipids of Overweight and Obese Patients with Type 2 Diabetes. Zahra Aslani, Parvin Mirmiran, Beitollah Alipur, Zahra Bahadoran, Mahdie Abbassalizade Farhangi
- Candidate foods in the asia-pacific region for cardiovascular protection: nuts, soy, lentils and tempe. W Lukito
- Lentil-based diets attenuate hypertension and large-artery remodelling in spontaneously hypertensive rats. Matthew G Hanson, Peter Zahradka, Carla G Taylor
- Savinase, the most suitable enzyme for releasing peptides from lentil (Lens culinaris var. Castellana) protein concentrates with multifunctional properties. Patricia Garcia-Mora, Elena Peñas, Juana Frias, Cristina Martínez-Villaluenga
- Nutritional quality of legumes, and their role in cardiometabolic risk prevention: a review. Malika Bouchenak, Myriem Lamri-Senhadji
- Protein Biofortification in Lentils (Lens culinaris Medik.) Toward Human Health. Sonia Salaria, Jon Lucas Boatwright, Pushparajah Thavarajah, Shiv Kumar, and Dil Thavarajah
- A review on traditional technology and safety challenges with regard to antinutrients in legume foods. Anand Sharma