Lentils Nutrition: Weight & Blood Sugar Supporter or Digestion Disruptor?

Lentils nutrition - Dr. Axe

Why are lentils good for you? Lentils nutrition benefits include the ability to improve and maintain heart health, help you to lose weight in a healthy way, fight blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to diabetes or low energy levels, and improve digestive health, too.

Lentils have been a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine for thousands of years. In fact, lentils go back to Neolithic times and are believed to be one of the oldest crops there is. Records show that in the Near East, lentils were eaten as far back as 6,000 to 13,000 years ago!

Today, lentils are enjoyed all over the world in many types of recipes. They are one of the best all-natural meat substitutes and loved by vegetarians because they’re a great protein food, are rich in nutrients and have a hearty, dense texture.

Even though lentils nutrition benefits are so impressive, Americans typically don’t eat anywhere near the amount of lentils, or other legumes for that matter, that many other countries do. For example, a survey done in 2002 and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that only about 8 percent of adults eat beans, lentils or other legumes on any given day despite how readily available and nutritious they are.

Aside from their high supply of nutrients, what’s another benefit of including protein-packed lentils in your diet regularly? They’re dirt cheap and very versatile. A big batch of dry lentils costs only dollars. That makes them a great, economic way to add a healthy source of essential minerals, protein and dietary fiber to many types of meals without needing to purchase expensive cuts of meat.

Lentils Nutrition Facts

Lentils are considered a top “functional food” due to their high nutritive value, polyphenols, minerals, fiber and other bioactive compounds.

One cup (approximately 198 grams) of cooked lentils has about:

  • 230 calories
  • 39.9 grams carbohydrates
  • 17.9 grams protein
  • 0.8 gram fat
  • 15.6 grams fiber
  • 358 micrograms folate (90 percent DV)
  • 1 milligram manganese (49 percent DV)
  • 6.6 milligrams iron (37 percent DV)
  • 356 milligrams phosphorus (36 percent DV)
  • 0.5 milligram copper (25 percent DV)
  • 0.3 milligram thiamine (22 percent DV)
  • 731 milligrams potassium (21 percent DV)
  • 0.4 milligram vitamin B6 (18 percent DV)
  • 71.3 milligram magnesium (18 percent DV)
  • 2.5 milligrams zinc (17 percent DV)
  • 1.3 milligrams pantothenic acid (13 percent DV)
  • 2.1 milligrams niacin (10 percent DV)
  • 0.1 milligram riboflavin (9 percent DV)
  • 5.5 micrograms selenium (8 percent DV)
  • 3 milligrams vitamin C (5 percent DV)

Lentils nutrition also contains some vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin K, choline and calcium.

As you can see from the lentil nutrition data above, lentils offer a wide range of important nutrients in just a one-cup serving, especially folate, manganese, iron and phosphorus. Many people actually miss out in some key minerals provided by lentils nutrition, resulting in a legitimate iron deficiency and magnesium deficiency. This is why eating lentils often is a great way to cover your bases and prevent deficiencies, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.

What Are Lentils? Types of Lentils

The lentil (scientific name Lens culinaris) is a member of the legume plant family and considered an edible, flattened pulse. Lentils grow on a bushy annual plant that produces the edible, lens-shaped seeds within pods.

Lentils are technically a type of biconvex seed since they grow in pods. They differ in size, shape and color. Some are large and flat, while the others are smaller and round. Are lentils a carbohydrate or a protein? They are actually a source of both, providing some plant-based protein and also some starch and fiber.

Today, Canada, India, Turkey, Australia and the U.S. provide the world with the highest amounts of exported lentils. There are many different kinds of lentils available in markets, with colors ranging from brown to green, yellow and red. Lentils also vary in size and appearance, depending on factors like whether or not they’ve been hulled (or “de-shelled”) and split. You can find lentils with or without their seed coats, whole or split. These processing techniques also affect how lentils should be cooked.

Some of the most popular types of lentils include:

  • Brown and green lentils are the most popular types in many countries
  • Red lentils/Egyptian lentils (usually split and have the most earthy flavor)
  • Brown/Spanish pardina lentils
  • French green lentils/puy lentils (which have a dark, speckled, blue-green color)
  • Black lentils (also called beluga lentils)
  • Yellow lentils/tan lentils (which are red inside and mostly used in India to make dhal)
  • Many other varieties (depending on the country)

Top 7 Benefits of Lentils Nutrition

1. Great Source of Filling Fiber

Eating a high fiber diet that includes a variety of whole plant foods is one of the surest ways to fill up and benefit your whole body. Lentils nutrition contains both insoluble and soluble fiber. That means they make you full by expanding in the stomach and absorbing water. Additionally, their fiber can help improve heart, metabolic, digestive and immune function by carrying waste, excess fat and toxins out of the body.

Some of the healthiest populations on Earth, such as those living in the blue zones like Italy and Greece where more people eat a typical Mediterranean diet, regularly eat lentils and experience better overall health benefits because of it.

2. Helps Protect Heart Health

When it comes to heart health, studies show that lentils are one of the best high-fiber foods. In animal studies, they are beneficial for lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found lentils to be rich in polyphenols. Several studies have demonstrated that the consumption of lentils is connected to reduced risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers have found that diets high in lentils prevent hypertension and tend to produce more favorable cholesterol levels than diets lower in lentils. Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels reduces damage done to your arteries and prevents dangerous plaque buildup, which greatly lowers your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Compared to other types of fatty or processed meats, lentils are also very low in both fat and sodium, other key factors that make up a heart-healthy diet. Diets lower in sodium favor healthy blood pressure levels, as do the many nutrients that lentils provide like folate, potassium and magnesium.

Folate can help lower homocysteine levels, which is known to be a serious risk factor for heart disease, while magnesium and potassium help improve circulation and carry adequate oxygen and nutrients around the body.

3. Can Improve Digestive Health

With such high levels of dietary fiber, lentils should be on everyone’s list in order to promote regular bowel movements. The high level of insoluble fiber found in lentils absorbs water in the digestive tract, swelling up and carrying waste out of the digestive tract.

This makes lentils a great digestive regulator and helps potentially prevent constipation, symptoms associated with IBS, inflammatory bowel diseases, diverticulitis and even diarrhea. In order to get the most digestive benefits from lentils nutrition, drink plenty of water so the fiber you consume has plenty of fluid to absorb.

Most popular lentils - Dr. Axe

4. Helps Alkalize the Body and Balance Its pH Level

Lentils are one of the most alkaline protein sources there is, which is important for balancing the body’s pH level and promoting a healthy gut environment. When the digestive system becomes too acidic — from eating processed foods high in sugar or fried foods, for example — an imbalance in bacteria develops that can lead to numerous health problems.

Lentils help combat the acidic environment of the gut and promote healthy bacterial growth. This is important for nutrient absorption and naturally preventing IBS, indigestion, constipation and many other diseases, too. Eating an alkalizing diet high in plant foods may help to lower the risk for problems like kidney stones, ulcers and bone loss.

5. Helps Manage Blood Sugar Levels

Research indicates that the high level of soluble fiber found in lentils traps glucose from carbohydrates and slows down digestion. This means lentils can help stabilize blood sugar levels. That is important for preventing energy dips, mood changes, and serious conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia.

One of the keys attributes of lentils nutrition is the low starch content. Lentils contain only about 35 percent digestible starch, and the remaining 65 percent is classified as resistant starch, the type that essentially escapes digestion and absorption in the small intestines because a high level of lentils’ carbohydrates and glucose cannot be digested in the body. They have a very low impact on blood sugar compared to refined grains and packaged carbohydrates.

In one 2018 study, replacing half of participants’ high-glycemic foods with lentils led to significant improvements in blood sugar management, sine lentils had a natural blood glucose -lowering effect. Another study found that various lentil foods prepared with different processing methods (boiling, pureeing, freezing, roasting, spray-drying) all had positive impacts on post-prandial blood glucose response compared to potato-based products.

6. High Source of Plant-Based Protein

Lentils are considered one of the best sources of plant-based protein. As a high-protein food, lentils contain about 18 grams of protein in every one-cup serving — the equivalent to eating about three whole eggs!

They have the third-highest level of protein by weight of any legume or nut, coming just after soybeans and hemp seeds. Lentils can be used in place of meat in many recipes, whether you eat meat or not, in order to increase fiber and nutrient intake.

They’re an important source of protein for people who avoid eating animal products because in addition to just keeping someone from becoming protein-deficient, they also provide many minerals. Essential minerals typically found in meat, like iron and B vitamins, may be missing in a vegetarian diet and can lead to adrenal fatigue, mood changes and other symptoms.

7. Can Help You Lose Weight

Why are lentils good for weight loss? With 15 grams of fiber in every one-cup serving of lentils, they’re one of the most filling, “stick-to-your-ribs” foods there is. Lentils are low in calories but high in protein and fiber. This helps make you feel full so you’re less likely to snack throughout the day or overeat.

In fact, observational studies published in Advances in Nutrition show a correlation between high lentil (or pulse) consumption and a healthy body weight. Research consistently shows an inverse relationship between pulse consumption and a high BMI or risk for obesity.

Another lentils nutrition benefit when it comes to weight loss? Lentils can help control food cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates since they help balance your blood sugar levels. Using lentils in place of meat (especially low-quality or processed meats) can cut the amount of saturated fat from your diet while also supplying important nutrients.

8. Improves Immunity and Gut Health

Besides preventing constipation, studies now show that dietary fiber is linked to improved immunity and digestive health. Diets high in fiber are correlated with lower instances of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and various digestive disorders.

The fiber present in lentils acts as a prebiotic that helps improve gut health and maintains a healthy microflora environment. This means your digestive system is less susceptible to oxidative damage and toxins, plus better at detoxifying the body and absorbing and using available nutrients from food.

Research also shows that diets high in lentils can positively impact gut health, leading to positive changes like decreased body weight, percent body fat and plasma triacylglycerols. In one study conducted on rats, lentils positively altered intestinal colonization and reduced the presence of pathogens.

In addition, lentils help prevent deficiencies in critical minerals like iron, folate, zinc and manganese that the body relies on to maintain a strong immune system.

Lentil Nutrition in Traditional Medicine

For thousands of years, people have known that lentils are part of a healing diet. They are even considered to be one of the most important Bible foods, mentioned as one of the crops that should be used to make sprouted grain bread.

Historically, people living in India, including those following a traditional Ayurvedic diet, have been some of the largest consumers of lentils. About a quarter of the worldwide production of lentils today comes from India, most of which is consumed there and never exported. Indian diets often include the staple dish called dhal or lentil curry, which is an ancient recipe and part of the everyday diet in India, eaten with both rice and roti. Lentils are also used to provide protein, make stock and thicken recipes.

What are lentils used for in traditional systems of medicine? For vegetarians, beans, dhals and lentils are important sources of nutrition. They provide protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins all year long, as they are shelf-stable. They are often combined with grains, vegetables, herbs and spices to increase fiber and antioxidant intake. This is important for reducing inflammation, digestive health, heart health, etc. According to Ayurvedic principles, here are some tips for cooking lentils to improve digestion and nutrient absorption:

  • Eat well-cooked lentils, which are easier to break down.
  • Add spices, such as cumin, black pepper, turmeric and ginger.
  • Store dried lentils in airtight containers at room temperature. Try to use lentils within six months.
  • Rinse several times before you cook. Ideally try soaking lentils to aid in the cooking process.
  • Do not add salt or acidic ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice until the lentils are cooked.

Lentils vs. Beans. vs. Quinoa vs. Chickpeas

What’s the difference between lentils and beans and grains? All of these are technically “seeds” of various plants. Lentils and beans (such as black beans, red beans or white beans) are both considered legumes since they grow inside pods. Lentils are technically biconvex seeds, whereas beans are seeds that grow in long pods.

Grains (wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, etc.) grow in grasses. All grains are small, hard, dry seeds that are available with or without an attached hull or fruit layer. Compared to beans/legumes, grains usually contain more carbs and typically less protein and fiber.

  • “Beans” include types like kidney beans, pink beans, pinto beans, red beans, pea beans, black beans, cannellini, chickpeas, navy beans, Great Northern beans, etc. Many beans are rich in complex carbohydrates, proteins, folate, iron and other nutrients, depending on the kind.
  • While lentils are small, flat and disk-like in shape, beans are usually larger and oval- or kidney-shaped. Both are good sources of fiber, starch and protein, but both types are not considered “complete proteins” since they are missing certain amino acids.
  • When we compare lentils nutrition to chickpeas nutrition (or garbanzo beans), we find that the two have roughly the same amount of calories. Chickpeas have a higher fat content (although they are still a low-fat food) and lower protein content. Chickpeas are also higher in sugar, while lentils are higher in fiber. Overall, chickpeas are a good source of manganese, copper, phosphorus, iron, zinc and folate.
  • Which is better, lentils or quinoa? Quinoa is a fiber-rich whole grain (technically a seed) and a good source of protein, since it provides all nine essential amino acids. It’s lower in fiber than lentils but has similar carbs and calories. Quinoa is also a good source of B vitamins, fiber, iron and calcium. Both lentils and quinoa are gluten-free and make great meat alternatives.
  • Are lentils or rice better for you? Lentils nutrition is more impressive than rice nutrition because lentils contain more fiber, protein and many key nutrients. Combining the two is a good way to form a more complete source of protein.

While lentils and other legumes/whole grains are high in nutrients like iron, magnesium, potassium and other nutrients, unfortunately these are the primary minerals that don’t get absorbed due to high antinutrient levels.

Lentils, like all other beans, grains and legumes, are best when soaked or sprouted. In addition to providing more absorbable nutrients, lentils are also easier to digest when soaked and sprouted, so if you have gas when eating legumes, you’ll probably feel better after trying this method.

Where to Find Lentils

Lentils are available in most grocery stores, health food stores, “bulk bin” markets and many ethnic markets (such as those that carry ingredients popular in Indian, African or Middle Eastern cuisine).

The type of lentils you should buy depends on what you’re using them for. Different types have varying consistencies and tastes. Lentils with husks/skins remain whole when cooked and are more hearty compared to lentils without husks, which tend to disintegrate into a thick purée. But since all types taste somewhat similar and provide roughly the same nutrients, you can easily sub one type out for another whenever need be.

How to Cook Lentils + Lentil Recipes

Tips for Cooking Lentils:

If you’re wondering how to cook lentils, the good news is that they are very easy to cook from scratch when you purchase them dried. Of course, you can always buy them pre-cooked and canned, too, to save time and any hassle. Even canned or frozen lentils are very inexpensive and can usually be found in organic varieties too.

  • Can you eat lentils raw? This is not a good idea, since raw lentils and legumes in general are very difficult to digest.
  • If you buy canned lentils, check to make sure the can hasn’t been made with BPA, a chemical commonly found in the lining of aluminum cans that’s associated with heart disease, prostate cancer, abnormal reproductive development and other health concerns.
  • Lentils take 10–40 minutes to cook from scratch depending on the exact kind you buy. Split lentils cook quicker than whole lentils, and hulled lentils cook quicker than lentils that still have their skins on. To cook dried lentils, rinse them well and discard any fragments floating around. Then bring them to a boil and simmer on low. Check the lentils after 10–20 minutes and keep simmering them until they’re soft but still chewy.
  • Dried lentils can also be sprouted by rinsing them well and then soaking them in water for about two to three days, changing the water every 24 hours. This positively changes lentils nutrition by increasing the amount of amino acids, vitamins and minerals that the body can actually absorb from lentils, since soaking and sprouting (or fermentation) reduces antinutrients.

Lentil Recipes:

Not sure what to do with lentils? You basically can’t go wrong adding nutty, earthy-flavored lentils to salads, soups, stews, dips or spreads. They’re also great used in place of chopped meat in things like veggie burgers, meatloaf or meatballs. Knowing about all of the benefits of lentils nutrition, today they’re even used to make totally grain-free pasta that’s very high in both protein and fiber.

Here are ways to take advantage of lentils nutrition benefits:

  • You can try replacing white beans with lentils in this recipe for Spicy Bean Dip
  • Making preservative-free, homemade baby food using mashed lentils
  • Adding lentils to your favorite healthy soup recipes
  • Using lentils in time-saving crockpot recipes
  • Replacing meat or other beans in things like tacos or hummus

Lentils History and Facts

Lentils are grown on an annual indigenous plant that is native to Western Asia and other parts of the world, including North America.

Today, lentil recipes are popular throughout South Asia, the Mediterranean regions and West Asia. In most countries, they’re combined with rice and/or other grains to make a “complete protein,” since together these have almost all of the essential amino acids that the body must acquire from food, since it can’t produce them itself.

One of the most popular lentil and rice dishes around the world originated in Western Asia and is called mujaddara or mejadra. Rice and lentils are also cooked together in khichdi, a popular dish in India and Pakistan. In Egypt, lentils are a staple food used in the national dish called kushari. Across Europe (especially in France and Italy), lentils are a popular legume used in many ways, such as added to soups or eaten with pork, chicken or beef.

In other parts of the world, like Israel, Ethiopia and Iran, lentils have also provided a high percentage of nutrients to growing populations. In Jewish mourning tradition, lentils are prepared for mourners together with boiled eggs, because their round shape symbolizes the life cycle from birth to death.

In Iran, lentils in the form of a stew poured over rice have provided protein and sustenance for centuries. Ethiopians have relied on lentils cooked into flatbreads or stews to provide calories, fiber and protein, especially for developing babies or when food has been scarce.

Precautions and Concerns Regarding Lentils

One of the biggest issues surrounding all beans and legumes, including lentils, is that they naturally contain antinutrient factors, such as trypsin inhibitors, and a relatively high phytate content. Trypsin is an enzyme involved in digestion, and phytate reduces the bioavailability of dietary minerals.

Another factor to consider when eating lentils is that they contain lectins, which can also disturb digestion and cause problems for some people like IBS. In moderate amounts, these shouldn’t be an issue, but when someone has compromised digestion already, consumes large portions of lentils or replaces animal products with lentils and other legumes, she might start experiencing some digestive discomfort and nutrient deficiencies.

As mentioned above, lentils and other legumes are best when soaked or sprouted. In addition to providing more absorbable nutrients, lentils are easier to digest this way and likely cause less gas.

All in all, lentils are a great addition to a well-rounded diet, but be cautious if you follow a strictly plant-based diet. You want to keep an eye on your nutrient intake and consider supplementing with things like vitamin B12 and iron.

Final Thoughts on Lentils Nutrition

  • The lentil (Lens culinaris) is a member of the legume plant family and considered an edible, flattened pulse. Lentils are technically a type of biconvex seed since they grow in pods, making them similar — but also different — than beans.
  • Lentils nutrition is a good source of polyphenols, folate, manganese, iron, copper, thiamine, phosphorus and more.
  • Lentils nutrition benefits include providing fiber, protecting heart health, improving digestion, managing blood sugar levels, balancing the body’s pH, supporting weight loss and boosting immunity/gut health.

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