What are lentils?
For the uninitiated, lentils are tiny round legumes—aka a seed that grows in a pod—that come in a variety of sizes and colors, including black, brown, yellow, red, or green. They've long been a staple in Indian cuisine (daal, anyone?) as well as vegan cooking as a plant-based protein source.
But like all buzzy superfoods (ahem, celery water), sometimes it's hard to sift through the hype. Which begs the question: Are lentils good for you?
10 Health Benefits of Lentils
Lentils actually have a LOT to offer. Here’s the 411 on lentil nutrition: “In about 1 cup of cooked lentils, you'll find between 200-250 calories, less than a gram of total fat, 40g of carbs (including 16g of dietary fiber), 3.6g of naturally-occurring sugars, and 18g of protein and zero cholesterol,” says Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN. “When it comes to micronutrients, lentils are a powerhouse protein source, containing about 20% of your daily vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) needs, 17% of your daily magnesium needs, and about 5% each of your daily calcium and vitamin C needs.”
So yes, lentils are pretty good for you, and generally affordable to buy (always a plus when you're in between paychecks). They also pack in a multitude of health benefits.
1. They're full of polyphenols.
Polyphenols are active compounds that fight against harmful agents in the body—everything from ultraviolet rays and radiation to heart disease and cancer. So yeah, they're a big deal. Lentils are a great way to get your polyphenol fix (they have more than fellow legumes green peas and chickpeas), and have been linked to long-lasting health benefits, including cardiovascular health and diabetes prevention. "Polyphenols found in lentils have been noted for their antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral, cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory, nephroprotective, antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-obesity, hypolipidemic, and chemopreventive activities," says dietician Whitney English, RDN, author of The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler. "Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of lentils may have lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of breast cancer."
2. They're high in protein.
Good news, vegans: One cup of lentils contains at least 18 grams of protein. You'd have to eat a whole can of chickpeas to get that much of the nutrient. (Pro tip: aim to get between 50 and 75 grams a day.)
3. They have a good balance of protein and carbs.
Plus, Pasquariello adds that not only are lentils high in protein, they also have a good balance of protein and carbs. This means that whatever meal you incorporate lentils into, you’re getting a two-in-one source of both macronutrients vs other protein sources such as tofu (which contains about 5g of carbs and less than 1g of fiber per cup) or chicken (which contains more protein but zero grams of carbs and fiber per cup).
4. They're a good source of iron.
One cup of lentils also has 6.5 milligrams of iron, which is about one-third of what you need for the entire day. Iron is super important for keeping oxygen pumping throughout your body. If you don't get enough, that blood flow slows down.
5. They're full of fiber.
Virtually every RD loves to preach about the importance of fiber—especially related to digestive health and healthy weight maintenance. One cup of lentils has at least 10 grams of it, which is actually almost twice as much as a cup of raw kale. "One serving also knocks out 20 percent of your daily fiber needs," says English.
6. Lentils are good for your bones.
When it comes to bone health, dairy-laden products tend to hog the spotlight, but lentils are a great option too with 35 grams of calcium per cup. Good to know, vegans!
7. They're a good source of folic acid.
Folic acid is an important nutrient to load up on all the time, but it's especially important when you're pregnant. Not getting enough can lead to serious birth defects. And even if pregnancy is not on your mind, folic acid supports healthy hair growth and can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Scientists have found lentils to be a great, well-absorbed dietary source of folic acid, particularly for women who are pregnant or hope to be pregnant soon.
8. They're high in magnesium.
If you have trouble sleeping, are stressed or overworked, your body could benefit from regular consumption of magnesium—and lentils can be a great source at 71 mg per cup of cooked lentils.
9. They contain zero cholesterol and saturated fat.
More good news: Pasquariello notes that lentils also contain zero cholesterol and no saturated fats either. The fat they do contain is unsaturated fat, aka the “healthy fats” our bodies need.
10. They’re rich in potassium.
Potassium, an electrolyte found in many fruits, veggies, and legumes, is another key nutrient that our bodies require and lentils are rich in them. Pasquariello says potassium is essential for regulating muscle contraction, neurological signaling, and fluid balance.
A dietitian unpacks the benefits of lentils:
Possible Side-Effects of Eating Lentils
Even lentils have an Achilles heel. All that beneficial fiber can have the unpleasant side effect of, well, gas. The key to avoiding it is to rev up your lentil intake slowly—especially if you aren't used to getting a lot of fiber normally.
Lentils also contain lectins—a protein in certain plants like nightshades and legumes that has been linked to inflammation and upset stomach. It's one of the reasons why people on the Paleo diet steer clear of beans and legumes. If you consistently feel ill after eating lentils and other lectin-filled foods, it's probably best to avoid them or limit how much of them you eat.
How To Work Lentils Into Your Diet
Next question: How can you use lentils without them tasting like the mush your grandma made? Let me count the ways:
1. Look for lentil-based pastas.
Brands like Modern Table, Explore Cuisine, and Tolerant all use lentils as a gluten-free substitute for pasta. You boil it the same way as you would regular noodles, add your favorite sauce, and it tastes just as delish as the regular thing.
2. Add lentils to your salad.
Given how much protein is in lentils, the little encased seeds are a great way to up the protein in your bowl of greens sans grilled chicken. To make, add the lentils to boiling water and let simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are tender. Then, once they cool off a bit, add 'em to your salad!
3. Make a lentil soup or stew.
Like soup but wish it filled you up? Go with a classic lentil soup—all the pros of hot soup, plus filling protein and fiber to actually keep you full long after you've finished. Combine uncooked lentils with your favorite veggies, herbs, and stock of choice, and let it all simmer away until cooked.
4. Use them as a meat substitute.
"I love using lentils as a meat substitute in dishes like Bolognese, lasagna, tacos, burritos, and my baked ziti," says English. "You can either cook dry lentils on the stovetop--which is easy to do since you don't have to pre-soak them--or buy canned cooked lentils."
However you choose to make lentils, you're bound to get a major nutritional boost. And that's something all eaters can agree is definitely a major plus.
Tips for Preparing Lentils
Use Different Lentils for Different Dishes
One of the keys to cooking lentils is choosing the best type of lentil for the dish. For dishes like daal, curry, or stew, Pasquariello suggests red lentils. Brown and green lentils, she says, have a texture that makes them great for soups, stews, or blending into a dip. If you’re making a salad or a dish where you want the lentil to stay intact, she recommends opting for French lentils or black beluga lentils, which will maintain their shape and texture after cooking.
Soak Them in Water Before Cooking
If you experience digestive issues when eating legumes, Pasquariello advises soaking lentils before cooking them. Just be sure to check on them earlier in the cooking process as they tend to cook faster when pre-soaked. Generally, though, she notes that soaking lentils before cooking them isn’t necessary, especially for red and brown lentils which tend to cook quickly. Plus, it adds an extra step to the cooking process which may deter some people from consuming them. So feel free to skip.
Use Different Cooking Times for Different Lentils
All types of lentils can essentially be prepared the same way, but with varying cooking times. Here’s how: “Bring lentils to a boil with plenty of water and salt, and simmer for the proper cooking time—about 20-25 minutes for red lentils, 30 minutes for brown, and 40-50 minutes for green or black,” Pasquariello says.
Try These Delicious Lentil Recipes
There is no shortage of enticing lentil recipes to try. To start, you can’t go wrong with a warming vegan lentil chili recipe. It stars lots of fresh and healthy ingredients (onions, tomatoes, avocados) and takes only 5-minutes to prepare in an Instant Pot.
If you’re in more of a salad mood, put together a pondicherry lentil salad recipe straight from Top Chef host and author Padma Lakshmi’s cookbook. "I love this salad because it’s so healthy, delicious, and easy to make," Lakshmi previously told Well+Good. You can serve it at room temperature, making it great if you’re meal prepping lunches for the week.
Still hungry for easy lentil recipes? Try making smokey braised lentils with sausages, lentil and sausage soup, lentils and roasted spring vegetables, dijon-cashew brussel sprouts and lentils, or lentils and corn tacos.
Now that we’ve covered if lentils are really good for you (again, the answer is a resounding yes), let’s dive into other pressing questions on all things lentils.
Can you eat lentils everyday?
It’s totally cool to eat lentils daily as long as you’re cooking and storing them properly. But, Pasquariello notes it’s important to consume a variety of proteins. “If lentils are your only source of protein, this can become a concern because you're not consuming all of the essential amino acids your body needs to properly function,” she says. “However, combining lentils with a source of whole grains like rice or corn, or even nuts or seeds, creates an overall complete protein. So just make sure you're adding those sources if you like to eat lentils daily.”
Is it bad to eat lentils that are not cooked all the way?
Yes! “You cannot eat lentils raw, as they contain a toxin called lectin that can induce vomiting and diarrhea if consumed,” Pasquariello says, as well as other serious digestive issues and health concerns. So ensuring you cook lentils thoroughly is very important. “Lectin breaks down with heat, rendering them completely non-toxic and safe to eat.” You’ll know the lentils are thoroughly cooked when they feel tender and break apart between your fingers, Pasquariello adds.
Are lentils healthier than rice?
This is a tricky question to answer because it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Lentils and rice serve different purposes in our diet. But, Pasquariello says, if she had to choose between the two, she’d go with lentils because they’re higher in protein and fiber compared to rice.
Are lentils or quinoa healthier?
Similarly, lentils and quinoa serve different purposes. So, it comes down to what nutrients you want to add more of into your diet. “Quinoa offers a very rich micronutrient profile, as it's a good source of manganese, magnesium, copper, folate, vitamin B6, and iron,” Pasquariello says. “If folate, magnesium, or iron is a concern, quinoa might be the best pick, but if the goal is to add more fiber and protein to your diet, I'd pick the lentils.”
Which color lentils are the healthiest?
Pasquariello recommends not stressing too much about the color or type of lentil you’re consuming because there aren’t vast differences in terms of nutrition. “What matters is that you're thinking of adding this nutritious food to your diet, which is great,” she says. “So if you find one you like and want to stick with it, that's excellent.” That said, she notes that black lentils do offer a bit more protein and fiber than other types of lentils, and contain anthocyanin, an antioxidant believed to help prevent certain chronic diseases.
How long can cooked lentils survive in the refrigerator?
“In the refrigerator, cooked lentils can be stored, covered, for up to a week, but they will retain the most freshness for up to four to five days—perfect if you're prepping a week's worth of lunches or dinners,” Pasquariello says.
How can you tell if cooked lentils have gone bad?
To check if your lentils have gone bad, Pasquariello advises checking for any visible signs of spoiling such as mold or discoloration. Then do a smell test. If there’s any sort of funky smell, toss them. As a rule of thumb, if they’ve been sitting in your refrigerator for over seven days, it’s best to make a fresh batch.
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