Why Lentils Are Just About the Healthiest Food You Can Eat
They might be tiny, but don't let their size fool you: Lentils are packed with numerous nutrients, from gut-friendly fiber to immune-boosting zinc. The little legumes are also essential ingredients in plant-based meals, thanks to their versatility and texture. Moreover, lentils are affordable and cook quickly, further adding to their appeal. Not convinced? Read on to learn about the health benefits of lentils along with our favorite recipes.
What Are Lentils?
Lentils are the edible seeds (otherwise known as pulses) of the lentil plant, which is native to Asia and North America, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They're part of the Fabaceae family, which includes other pulses like chickpeas, green peas, and kidney beans. Lentils are also called "legumes," though the term technically indicates any plant in the Fabaceae family. Also, here's a fun fact: The botanical name of the lentil plant is Lens culinaris, which is a nod to the curved lens-like shape of lentil seeds.
Health Benefits of Lentils
There are many varieties of lentils, including brown, green, red, and yellow lentils. The exact nutritional content varies between each type, but all lentils generally boast similar (and impressive) health benefits. Most notably, lentils are an excellent source of plant protein. This is especially noteworthy if you eat a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet, as such eating styles tend to be lower in protein, according to Erica Ingraham, MS, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Listen Nutrition. "Protein plays an important role in muscle growth and repair, bone development, and immune system [support,]" explains Ingraham. It also increases satiety after a meal, making lentils a satisfying and filling food.
Additionally, lentils are a superb source of fiber, "a carbohydrate that's important for healthy digestion," says Ingraham. In fact, lentils have more fiber than both beans and chickpeas, according to the International Journal of Food Science and Technology. Lentils contain both soluble and insoluble fiber; soluble fiber absorbs water in the body, creating a gel-like substance that may help ease diarrhea. Insoluble fiber doesn't absorb water, which has a bulking effect on the stool. This can be helpful if you're prone to constipation, as bulkier stool is easier to pass. Simply put, the fiber in lentils is incredible for digestion.
There's more: Lentils contain polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. According to Ingraham, polyphenols reduce inflammation and oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals (which are harmful molecules). This protects cells from damage, potentially reducing the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease or cancer. The edible seeds are also packed with micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin K, folate, iron, and zinc, according to the journal Nutrients. Like protein, iron and zinc are often lacking in plant-based diets, "so [eating] lentils can be a helpful way to get these nutrients," explains Ingraham. Furthermore, vitamin A and zinc are vital for healthy immune function, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How to Enjoy Lentils at Home
If you're new to lentils, you'll be glad to know that they're easy to prepare. They can be incorporated into a variety of dishes, says Ingraham, including soups, stews, curries, and dips like hummus. Lentils are also exceptional meat substitutes, thanks to their rich protein content and meaty texture. Try them in a vegetarian shepherd's pie or hearty lentil patties. Looking for a simpler approach? Make a rosemary lentil side dish or warm lentil salad with poached eggs for a flavorful and filling meal.