With a history that dates to Ancient Egypt, the lentil is a time-proven legume that's even more relevant today with the abundance of vegetarian and vegan diets. Lentils are packed with protein and numerous other dietician-recommended nutrients; that's why many non-meat-eaters integrate this earthy, nutty flavored legume into their diet daily.
Grown across western Asia and North America, lentils — like all legumes — grow in pods. They're harvested for the small, lens-shaped seeds found inside; the seeds come in green, brown, black, red, yellow and orange varieties. No matter the color, lentils are delicious and nutritious and deserve a spot on your dinner plate. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. Lentils Pack a Nutritious Punch
They may be small, but lentils pack a powerful punch when it comes to nutrition. They're filled with folate, fiber, iron and potassium, as well as manganese, a mineral that helps your brain function normally. This wholesome quality is one reason dietician and creator of the Quarantine Food Calculator, Joanna Michalowski, recommends legumes, whether clients eat meat or not.
"Consuming as little as a half a cup of lentils per day can significantly enhance our diet quality," Michalowski says via email. "Lentils contain other plant compounds called phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic effects, which indicates that consuming lentils can have protective effects against chronic disease including cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes."
Fiber is another key to healthy eating, and lentils are brimming with it. High-fiber foods take more time to digest, according to Mayo Clinic, and they make you feel fuller for longer. That means you'll crave fewer calories and avoid overeating.
If a baby's in your future, listen up: The folate in lentils is a vitamin that's essential for women of childbearing age, registered dietitian and nutrition blogger Kara Lydon of Kara Lydon Nutrition says via email. Folic acid helps form the neural tube (the embryonic structure that creates the brain and spinal cord); without adequate folate, babies can suffer serious, and sometimes fatal, neural tube defects that affect the spine, spinal cord or brain.
2. They Have More Protein Than Most Legumes
Meatless diet or not, lentils are a healthy, low-fat way to consume the required daily protein intake, which is about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, according to Harvard Health. Lentils also have more protein than most common beans. Soybeans have the highest protein content, with lentils in second, and kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, and chickpeas rounding out the list.
"Lentils are a good source of protein for those trying to eat more plant-based," Lydon says. "A half-cup serving of cooked lentils provides about 12 grams of protein — about as much as two eggs. Combine a serving of lentils with other whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, and you'll be well on your way to reaching your protein needs."
Like all foods, lentils don't contain every single nutrient you need. Michalowski says essential amino acids like methionine, vital for normal growth and repairing body tissue, is lacking in lentils. That's why Michalowski recommends you eat lentils with other plants rich in methionine, including wheat and rice.
3. Cooking Lentils Is Simple
From soups to salads and side dishes to mains, recipes with lentils abound — and they're all super simple. You don't need to soak dry lentils like you do when cooking dry beans. Instead, just rinse them, add 3 cups (709 milliliters) of liquid to 1 cup (236 milliliters) of beans, bring the liquid to a boil, then cover and reduce to a simmer until the lentils are tender. Cooking time depends on the type of bean; whole lentils (black, green and brown) will take about 20 to 30 minutes, while split lentils (those with their seed coat removed, namely yellow, red and orange lentils) require about 10 to 15 minutes, according to Harvard Health.
Canned lentils also make for a quick, ready-to-eat meal addition, but Michalowski recommends reading the label closely, because they often contain additional ingredients like sugar or salt.
What should you make with those cooked or canned lentils? Lentil soups are one of the most popular dishes, but don't stop there. Lentil curries, stews and pates are creative options; you can also substitute the legumes for meat and make lentil patties or meatballs, Michalowski says.
4. Don't Overdo It
Lentils are ideal for weight loss and overall health, but like beans, legumes do have one embarrassing downside: gas. But fiber isn't the only thing that causes post-lentil flatulence. Lentils contain raffinose, a complex sugar our bodies just don't process easily.
When these sugars hit your gut, your body turns them into energy, but at the same time, creates hydrogen, methane and the gas-trademark sulphur smell in the process, according to the BBC. Lydon says lentils can cause other GI issues, and may cause IBS symptoms to flare for those sensitive to FODMAP foods (those notorious for causing bloating and gas) like wheat and beans.