Lowering Health Risks with Lentils

Lentils (Lens culinaris) belong to the family Fabaceae, along with fava beansedible-pod and mature peasblack eyed peas, adzuki beanssoybeans, common beans (green snap beanspinto beansheirloom beansblack turtle beans, kidney beans, and navy beans), jicama, lima beanspeanutschickpeas, carob, and licorice. The family also includes broom, gorse, and kudzu.

Lentils originated in central Asia or the Near East, and have been part of the human diet for up to 13,000 years. They were probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia during the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, along with flax, peas, emmer wheat, barley, einkorn wheat, chickpeas, and bitter vetch. Lentils have long been eaten with barley and wheat, which originated in the same regions and spread together throughout Africa and Europe.

Lentils are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. The first mention tells the story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for stewed lentils (a “mess of pottage”). They’re also mentioned as a part of a bread that was made during the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people. In Jewish tradition, lentils are considered as food for mourners, because their round shape symbolizes the life cycle from birth to death.

Lentils were a staple in the diet of ancient Iranians, who ate them daily in a stew poured over rice. In Shia Islam, lentils are believed to have been blessed by seventy prophets, including Jesus and Mohammed.

In ancient Greece, lentils were considered food for the poor. Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC) prescribed lentils for his patients with liver ailments.

Before the 1st century AD, lentils were introduced into India, a country whose traditional cuisine revolves around the lentil dish known as dal.

In 18th century France, Marie Leszczyńska, wife of King Louis XV, made lentils fashionable at court. They were named “lentils of the queen.”

Italians traditionally eat lentils on New Year’s Eve to bring money in the next year, most likely because of their round coin-like shape. In many Catholic countries, lentils are a staple food during Lent.

Lentils may have been introduced to the United States in the early 1900s. They have been grown in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Canada since the 1930s as a rotation crop with wheat.

Lentils can:

  1. Eliminate toxinsMolybdenum in lentils produces the enzyme sulfite oxidase, which helps in eliminating toxic substances, including purines, sulfites, and drug residues.
  2. Give you energyMolybdenum in lentils helps in metabolizing fats and carbohydrates and in mobilizing iron from your liver, which can prevent anemia. Lentils are rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Yellow, orange, red, and pink lentils contain a lower concentration of fiber than green or brown lentils (11% rather than 31%). Lentils give you energy by providing slow-burning complex carbohydrates. They also increase energy by replenishing iron stores. Lentils have about twice as much iron as other legumes. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. Children, adolescents, and menstruating, pregnant, and lactating women have increased needs for iron, and lentils are a low-fat way to get it.
  3. Promote cardiovascular health. Folate in lentils lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer by preventing build-up of homocysteine in your blood. The soluble fiber in lentils binds to cholesterol and carries it out of your body. 
  4. Build strong bodies. Molybdenum in adzuki beans helps in preventing tooth decay. Folate in lentils helps create genetic material and build cells. Consuming an adequate amount of folate is essential during periods of growth, from pregnancy through adolescence. Women who get enough folate before becoming pregnant, and during the early months of pregnancy, lower the risk of birth defects of the spinal cord and brain. At all ages, everyone needs folate to produce enough red blood cells to avoid developing anemia. Folate supports cell production, especially in your skin, allows nerves to function properly, and helps prevent osteoporosis-related bone fractures. Several enzymes need manganese to fulfill their jobs forming cartilage and bone and metabolizing carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. With approximately 26% of their calories from protein, lentils, like other legumes, have the third-highest level of protein, by weight, of any plant-based food after soybeans and hemp seeds. Lentils are one of the cheapest protein sources available, and are an essential source of inexpensive protein in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and India. Proteins in lentils include all the essential amino acidsPhosphorus in lentils helps in the formation of bones and teeth, in using carbohydrates and fats and synthesizing protein, storing energy, muscle contraction, kidney function, heartbeat, and nerve conduction. Phytic acid (or phytate when in salt form) is a phosphorous compound in lentils. Like tannins, phytic acid protects the seed until the proper conditions are met for it to sprout and grow. Humans can’t digest phytate, but even worse, it bonds with certain minerals and prevents them from being absorbed. On the plus side, small amounts of phytates in food act as antioxidants. They also slow down the absorption of sugars and regulate insulin levels. Phytate can protect against osteoporosis.
  5. Promote digestive health. The fiber in lentils helps to keep your digestive system running smoothly, prevents constipation, and may help to prevent colon cancer.
  6. Promote healthy weight. The fiber in lentils fills your stomach and keeps you feeling satiated longer. The protein helps to keep blood sugar levels low which, in turn, may help to keep weight off.
  7. Fight free radicalsManganese in lentils is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, which disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within your cells). Small amounts of phytates in food act as antioxidants. They also slow down the absorption of sugars and regulate insulin levels.
  8. Protect you from cancer. Tannins are astringent, bitter plant compounds that bind to and block the digestion of proteins and other compounds. Like phytic acid, tannins protect the seed until the proper conditions are met for it to sprout and grow. The astringency from the tannins is what causes the pucker feeling in your mouth when you eat unripened fruit or drink red wine. Tannins play a role in protecting plants from predators. They also provide substantial protection against cancer (including cancer of the stomach and lungs). Some tannins also inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause tooth decay. Phytate can combat colon cancer by reducing oxidative stress in your intestinal tract. It may protect against Parkinson’s disease.

Lentils also contain purines, which can be broken down to form uric acid. Excess accumulation of uric acid can lead to gout in some people. Animal-based proteins are much more likely to cause gout, due to their higher levels of purines and their tendency to cause acidosis in the body. Purines from plant foods don’t seem to have that effect. Because dietary fiber speeds food through the digestive tract and may bind uric acid in the gut for excretion, the fiber in lentils and other vegetables may explain the lower the risk of gout from vegetable proteins versus animal proteins.

Lentils are relatively tolerant to drought and are grown throughout the world, primarily in Canada, India, Turkey, and the United States.

Nutrients in 1 Cup Cooked Lentils

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

molybdenum

148.5 µg

198%

folate

358.38 µg

90%

fiber

15.64 g

63%

manganese

0.98 mg

49%

iron

6.59 mg

37%

protein

17.86 g

36%

phosphorus

356.4 mg

36%

copper

0.5 mg

25%

thiamine

0.33 mg

22%

potassium

730.62 mg

21%

magnesium

71.28 mg

18%

vitamin B6

0.35 mg

18%

zinc

2.51 mg

17%

carbohydrates

39.86 g

13%

Calories

229.68

13%

pantothenic acid

1.26 mg

13%

niacin

2.1 mg

10%

riboflavin

0.14 mg

8%

selenium

5.54 µg

8%

calcium

37.62 mg

4%

fat

0.75 g

1%

vitamin A

15.85 IU

0.3%

sodium

3.96 mg

0.2%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

Available year-round, lentils are available prepackaged and in bulk bins. Lentils are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split into halves. While the most common types in the United States are green and brown, both whole with skins, lentils are also available in black, yellow, orange, red, and pink colors. Yellow, red, and orange lentils are usually without skins, and sometimes split. The different types offer varying consistencies, with the whole brown and green lentils retaining their shape better after cooking, while the yellow, orange, red, and pink generally become soft and mushy. While the flavor differs slightly among the varieties, they generally feature a hearty, dense, earthy, and somewhat nutty flavor. I buy organic lentils in bulk for about $1.99 per pound. As with any other food in the bulk section, make sure that the bins containing the lentils are covered, and that the store has a good product turnover to ensure maximum freshness. Whether in bulk or prepackaged, make sure that the lentils are whole, and there is no evidence of damage from moisture or insects. Store lentils in an airtight container in a cool, dry, and dark place. Stored this way, they will keep for up to 12 months. Don’t mix lentils that you purchase at different times, as they may have varying degrees of dryness and require different cooking times.

Canned lentils can be found in some grocery stores; however, avoid cans that are lined in white, because these contain bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor.

Tannins and phytic acid protect seeds, including lentils, until the proper conditions are met for them to sprout and grow. Trypsin is an enzyme involved in the digestion of protein, so trypsin inhibitors prevent the digestion of certain proteins.

You can reduce phytates and trypsin inhibitors by soaking the lentils in warm water overnight. Traditionally, people have soaked and sprouted seeds, nuts, legumes and grains in order to get the optimal nutritional benefits. Soacking deactivates the phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors, and releases them into the water, making the enzymes, minerals, and protein in the lentils more readily available for absorption into your body.

Before soaking dried lentils, spread them out on a plate or cooking surface to check for, and remove, small stones or debris. Next, place the lentils in a strainer, and rinse them thoroughly under cool running water. Place them in a bowl. Add 2-3 cups of clean, filtered water per cup of dried lentils. Cover with a lid or plate, and soak overnight. When you want to use them, drain them and rinse well.

Germinated Lentils

Here are my lentils after soaking overnight. See the little sprouts?

You can also sprout dried lentils by leaving them in water for several days, draining and rinsing every 4-8 hours. Sprouting improves their amino acid profile.

To cook lentils, use three cups of liquid for each cup of soaked lentils. Lentils placed in already boiling water will be easier to digest than those that were brought to a boil with the water. When the water returns to a boil, turn down the heat to simmer and cover. Green and brown lentils usually take about 30 minutes, while red ones require 20 minutes.

These cooking times can be slightly adjusted depending upon the final use. If you are going to be serving lentils in a salad or soup and want a firmer texture, remove them from the stove top when they have achieved this consistency–typically 5-10 minutes earlier than their usual cooking time. If you are making dal or some preparation that requires a mushier consistency, achieving this texture may take an additional 10-15 minutes.

Cooked lentils will keep fresh in the refrigerator for about three days if placed in a covered container.

Lentils are frequently combined with rice, which has a similar cooking time. A lentil and rice dish is referred to in the Middle East as mujaddara or mejadra. Rice and lentils are also cooked together in khichdi, a popular dish in India. A similar dish, kushari, is made in Egypt and considered one of two national dishes. Lentils are used to prepare inexpensive and nutritious soup all over Europe and North and South America. Lentils are commonly cooked in Ethiopia in a stew-like dish called kik, or kik wot, one of the dishes people eat with Ethiopia’s national food, injera flat bread. Yellow lentils are used to make a bland stew, which is one of the first solid foods Ethiopian women feed their babies.

Here are some recipes using lentils:

Enjoy these nutritional powerhouses!


This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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