How Healthy Are Lentils? What Nutritionists Need You to Know
Lentils are popping up everywhere, including as pasta. But how healthy are they? Learn about their nutrients, benefits, and how to cook them.
Lentils are like the little legumes that could. Sure, they’re super nutritious. But that’s only the beginning. “Lentils are extremely versatile,” says Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian and owner of Hispanic Food Communications. “Not only do they make a great addition to lunches and dinners, but you’d be surprised to learn how delicious they can be for snacks and even breakfast.”
They’re also inexpensive and a cinch to prepare. What’s not to love? If you haven’t tried lentils lately, here’s why they’re worthy of a space in your pantry.
Lentils: The original ancient protein
Botanically speaking, lentils belong to a family of plants called pulses, the edible seeds of legumes. Pulses include dried beans, peas, and chickpeas. They’ve been around for millennia—literally. Lentils are one of the oldest domesticated crops. They’re so ancient they’re even mentioned in the Old Testament. Initially enjoyed by the ancient Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, these drought-tolerant proteins quickly migrated to India and Europe and eventually North America.
Types of lentils
If eating the rainbow is one of your nutrition goals, lentils can help. There are red lentils, yellow lentils, green lentils, brown lentils, black Beluga lentils, and more—each with a different shape, size, taste, texture, and cooking time.
Which should you use? From a culinary standpoint, there are basically two types of lentils:
- Whole lentils: These still have their seed coats intact, so they hold their shape after cooking. This makes them an outstanding pick for salads, burgers, tacos, and meatloaf. Look for: French green lentils and black Beluga lentils.
- Split lentils: Since split lentils are stripped of their seed coats, they cook faster than whole lentils. They also tend to break down under heat, making them a better fit for dips, smoothies, soups, curries, and muffins. Look for: split red or yellow lentils.
Most lentils are sold dry, but you can also find them canned. If you’re looking for other creative ways to eat more of this healthy legume, try lentil flour in pancakes or muffins. Or whip up a pot of lentil pasta for a healthy boost of plant-based protein and fibre.
You’ll also find lentils in the snack food aisle in the form of chips and puffs. While these may offer some nutrition, they can also contain added sodium and fat. So they can’t compare to minimally processed lentil products.
Like other beans, lentils are loaded with healthy plant protein, vitamins, minerals, and fibre. They’re also high in slowly digested, healthy complex carbohydrates. That’s a good thing for most of us, but keep an eye on portion sizes if you’re on a low-carb diet. One cup of cooked lentils (198 grams) contains the following nutrients and daily values (DV):
- Calories: 230
- Protein: 18 g (36 percent DV)
- Fat: 1 g (1 percent DV)
- Carbohydrates: 40 g (15 percent DV)
- Fibre: 16 g (57 percent DV)
- Folate: 358 ug (90 percent DV)
- Iron: 7 mg (39 percent DV)
- Magnesium: 71 mg (17 percent DV)
- Potassium: 731 mg (16 percent DV)
- Zinc: 3 mg (27 percent DV)
Health benefits of lentils
“The more lentils we eat, the more health benefits we receive,” says Nick Buettner, program director of The Blue Zones Project, a healthy-community initiative. “Eating healthy, plant-based protein sources, like lentils, in place of red and processed meat can lower your risk of several diseases and premature death,” he says. Here are some of the helpful things they can do for your body:
Boost heart health: Pulses, like lentils, boast a special kind of cholesterol-lowering fibre called viscous fibre. As part of a low-saturated-fat, heart-healthy diet, a daily serving of pulses can reduce “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol an extra 4 to 5 percent, says Buettner. “On the practical side, swapping beans and lentils for some of the meat you consume also saves money,” he adds.
Prevent cancer: Lentils are exceptionally high in folate, which may help protect against several types of cancers, such as head, neck, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer, says Buettner. They are so powerful that a 2019 Clinical Nutrition study of 7,216 people found that those who consumed the most lentils were 37 percent less likely to die of cancer than infrequent legume eaters.
Aid weight loss: “Lentils are an excellent source of dietary fibre, a nutrient that helps us feel satiated and may reduce appetite and help prevent overeating,” says Buettner. Combine that with their generous protein, and you’ve got a winner. What about lentils’ calories? No need to worry. A recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition meta-analysis of 21 studies found that eating pulses, like lentils, helped people lose weight even without cutting calories.
Boost gut health: Lentils boast a cocktail of substances that improve gut health, says Karen Cichy, a research plant geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition to their abundant fibre, lentils also contain resistant starch and prebiotics, called oligosaccharides, that serve as food for beneficial gut bacteria, she explains.
(Related: 3 Ways To Get More Lentils In Your Diet)
Safety, risks, and side effects
Like beans, fibre-rich lentils can cause gas and bloating if they aren’t a regular part of your diet. Starting with small portions can give your digestive system a chance to adjust. Lentils can also spell discomfort if you are sensitive to FODMAP foods—these are foods that can ferment in the colon and cause bloating and gas. Recent research finds rinsing lentils after cooking may help, though.
What about the fact that they contain lectins—plant proteins that some say have negative effects on health? First, it can be helpful to know that concerns about lectins are overhyped. Even if lectins were an issue, lentils aren’t to blame. “The lectin content in fully cooked lentils should not be a concern, as lectins are deactivated in the boiling process even without soaking,” says Cichy.
How to prepare lentils
Unlike beans, which require soaking and take eons to cook, lentils are fast. Depending on the type, these little guys cook up in five to 20 minutes. And there’s no soaking required. Just give them a quick rinse, boil them in a big pot of water, and you’re good to go.
However, if you’re really pressed for time, whip up a batch of instant pot lentils or crockpot lentils. Or if you have zero motivation to cook, reach for canned lentils, suggests Klinger. “I always keep a couple of cans of lentils handy in my pantry for last minutes dishes such as soups and patties,” she adds.