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?
Health benefits of lentils
Lentils actually have a LOT to offer—so yes, they are pretty good for you. They're low in fat, extremely nutrient-dense, and generally pretty affordable to buy (always a plus when you're in between paychecks). And they pack in a lot of health benefits, including:
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'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.
4. 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.
5. 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!
6. 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.
7. 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.
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 you of them you eat.
How to work lentils into your diet
Now the practical question: How can you get your fill of 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. 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.
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