You Gotta Love Lentils! The Health Benefits of an Almost Perfect Food

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Margaret Boyles
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There’s nothing homelier—or, homier—than a steaming bowl of ordinary green/brown lentil soup. But, hey, looks aren’t everything. As a staple food, lentils deliver incredible health benefits. 

  • For starters, lentils (along with their close relatives beans, chickpeas, and dry peas called pulses) have been called an “almost perfect food.” Low in fat and sodium, low-glycemic, gluten-free, and they’re an especially rich source of fiber, protein, folate, potassium, and antioxidant compounds. They’re also good sources of many essential minerals.
  • They have many clinically confirmed health benefits that include reducing cholesterol, decreasing the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and some gastrointestinal diseases, including colon cancer.
  • They help manage weight and prevent obesity.
  • The common brown-green lentils are really cheap (although some types: e.g., French de Puy, black Beluga, are pricey).
  • They’re versatile enough to go from soup to salad to casserole to dessert.
  • The USDA counts lentils as either a protein or a vegetable. That means if you’re serving, say, fish, chicken, eggs, pork or beef for dinner, that cup of lentils you serve alongside will count as two vegetable servings.
  • Dry lentils keep for years without refrigeration.
  • For scratch cooks, lentils qualify as fast food. They require no pre-soaking and cook up quickly.
  • As crops, they’re good for the soil and the environment, requiring only about half the fossil-fuel inputs and a fraction of the water consumed by most crops, conditioning the soil, improving the yield of the crop that follows, and increasing soil biological diversity.

Lentils are among humanity’s oldest cultivated staple foods, originating in the region of modern Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, and cultivated for around 10,000 years.

Canada today produces more lentils than any other nation—more than a third of world production. In the U.S., North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington state lead the nation in commercial lentil production.

Lentils come in many colors and sizes, each with unique flavor and cooking characteristics. The French green lentils tend to hold their shape best after cooking, which makes them popular for salads; the dehulled red varieties get mushy when cooked, making them useful for thickening soups and stews.

Because they’re so cheap and available, I use mostly the “brown” variety commonly available in the dried-bean shelf on my local supermarket. They’re generally olive green rather than brown, but they cook up to that homely brownish mess. I find if I cook them just to the point of tenderness, they’ll remain intact for a salad, and if I let them cook longer, they turn soft and mushy for soup or brownies (see below).

One pound of ordinary green-brown supermarket lentils ($1.19 in my store) yields around 6 cups of cooked lentils. A cup of lentils will provide 18 grams of protein, one-third of the daily requirement. Americans eat only about half the fiber deemed essential for good health, and a cup of lentils provides about half the 25 to 30 grams of fiber an adult needs each day. Lentils contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, both of which deliver important health benefits.

Lentil Soup Recipe

Cook 2 cups of dry lentils in 6 cups of water until the lentils are soft. Meanwhile, dice an onion, a carrot, a rib or two of celery, and a couple cloves of garlic, and saute in a little olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add to the lentils and simmer until vegetables are soft. Then add a bunch of finely chopped greens (chard, kale, collards, spinach, cabbage), along with salt and whatever other seasonings you like, and simmer until greens are tender. Top with a bit of grated fresh parmesan or other topping you like. I often pair this soup with whole-wheat flatbread and a spicy hummus.

Here’s a recipe for lentil brownies. I used regular supermarket brown lentils, which add 22 grams of fiber and 24 grams of protein to the mix.

Lentil Brownies Recipe

1 ½ cup cooked, drained brown lentils, mashed or pureed
3 eggs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup vegetable oil (or butter)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cup flour (you could use whole-wheat pastry flour or white whole-wheat flour)
½ cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
¾  teaspoon salt (½ t. if using salted butter)
1 ½ cup dark-chocolate chips
½ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350º. Grease a 9” x 13” pan.

Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Mix eggs, lentils, oil, and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to dry mixture, stir well. Our into pan and bake 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in middle comes out dry. Cool and cut into serving sizes.

Photo of lentil soup: Robert Judge. Some rights reserved

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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