Rich in protein and high in fiber, lentils are the ideal legumes for improving heart health, aiding weight loss and lowering blood sugar. Discover their properties and beneficial characteristics.
Lentils (Lens culinaris) are an annual herbaceous plant belonging to the legume family, native to Mesopotamia and cultivated today all over the world. The fruits are pods containing two seeds with a characteristic lens shape, whose size and color varies greatly depending on the variety.
The types include brown lentils, red lentils or “Egyptian lentils”, green lentils, coral or pink lentils, blonde lentils and black lentils.
The most valuable are grown in some Italian regions such as the lentils of Castelluccio di Norcia (PGI), the green lentils of Altamura, the lentils of Ustica, the lentils of Colfiorito and the lentils of Mormanno.
Lentils are grown commercially in over 50 countries, but production is concentrated in just three: India, Canada and Turkey, accounting for about 2/3 of world lentil production. Canada overtook India as the world’s largest producer and currently produces 37% of all lentils.
Varieties and types of lentils: characteristics and differences
As we said, there are different types of lentils, the most common and used is the brown one but there are many other varieties, let’s discover together the most common ones.
- Brown lentils: they are the most widespread and well-known type of lentils. In addition to the classic brown color, the seed has a medium size. They are mainly used for soups and recipes with pasta or cereals;
- Red lentils: these are also quite common, they have a color that tends to orange and have a small pod. They cook quickly and have a very tender texture. The decorticated type of this variety is also readily available;
- Green lentils: less common than the previous ones, they are among the largest lentils, therefore they need to be soaked before cooking. Obviously they are dark green in color and have a very intense flavor. Among the green lentils there are some excellences, such as the lentils of Castelluccio di Norcia which are smaller than other varieties of green lentils;
- Black Lentils: These lentils are small and very dark. They are very aromatic and have a sweet taste. They are used mainly as a side dish or for cold dishes such as salads.
Lentils: calories and nutritional values
The calories of lentils are about 352 per 100 grams of food, a value in line with other legumes. They are mostly composed of carbohydrates (about 63% of their weight), especially starch, which represents 50% of the total calorie content. The type of starch most represented in legumes (and therefore also in lentils) is amylose, defined as “slow release”, as it is less easily digestible and whose consumption determines a smaller and more gradual increase in blood sugar.
The protein content is also excellent, which is equal to ¼ of the weight, which makes this legume particularly suitable to be consumed as part of a vegan or vegetarian diet. As with other legumes, lentil proteins are also considered “of medium biological value” as they do not contain all the essential amino acids. To solve this “problem” it is sufficient to combine lentils with a cereal (for example by combining lentils with bread or pasta).
The good fiber content of lentils also improves the sense of satiety, intestinal transit and reduces the absorption of simple sugars and fats, especially cholesterol.
In addition to this, lentils contain anthocyanins, a family of antioxidants and pigments present in high quantities in the skin of legumes and which give foods their characteristic color. Finally we remember the presence of phytic acid, an antinutrient present in many legumes and which compromises the absorption of various minerals such as iron and zinc. Its quantity is reduced by soaking, cooking, germination or fermentation.
Finally, as regards micronutrients, lentils contain good amounts of calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C and some B vitamins. For greater clarity, we report below the table with the nutritional values of this legume.
Nutritional values per 100g of lentils:
- Waterfall: 8.26 g
- kcal: 352
- Proteins: 24.63 g
- Fat: 1.06 g
- of which saturated: 0.154 g
- Carbohydrates: 63.35 g
- of which sugars: 2.03 g
- Fibers: 10.7 g
- Potassium: 677 mg
- Phosphorus: 281 mg
- Magnesium: 47 mg
- C vitamin: 4.5 mg
- Vitamin B3: 2.605 mg
- Folate (Vit. B9): 478 µg
- Glycemic index: 32
- Cholesterol: 0 g
Lentils: health benefits
After having seen the characteristics of the main compounds contained in this legume, let’s now see in detail what regular consumption is good for. In short, lentils are good for the heart, reduce cholesterol, help with diabetes, have energizing properties and help prevent certain diseases. Let’s see specifically the benefits of lentils.
✓ Reduction of excess weight
Research suggests that regular consumption of lentils can help in weight control thanks to the excellent sense of satiety they guarantee and this is due to the amount of soluble fiber and protein present in them.
✓ Lower cholesterol and blood pressure
The amount of fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium and low sodium levels are the characteristics of lentils that guarantee a reduction in bad cholesterol (LDL) and blood pressure.
✓ Help against diabetes
Among the properties of lentils we also find the ability to reduce the risk of onset of diabetes and improve glycemic control. Studies show that the high soluble fiber intake of lentils reduces the absorption of simple sugars, thereby stabilizing blood sugar and preventing energy drops, mood swings and serious conditions such as diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia.
✓ Friends in pregnancy and breastfeeding
Lentils are an excellent source of folic acid (vitamin B9), essential for preventing megaloblastic anemia, and, above all, severe fetal malformations such as neural tube defects (including spina bifida, anencephaly and encephalocele) and other malformations, in particular some cardiovascular congenital defects, malformations of the lips and palate (cleft lip and palate), defects of the urinary tract and limb reduction. The adequate intake of vitamin B9 allows the primary prevention of congenital malformations with a risk reduction of up to 70%.
✓ Best strength
The consumption of lentils is able to increase the energy tone thanks to the restoration of iron reserves. This effect plays a particularly important role in women during menstruation (more at risk of iron deficiency), during pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Iron needs are also greater in children and adolescents.
✓ Cancer prevention
A observational study and a meta -analysis linked the consumption of legumes (including lentils) to the lower risk of developing colon cancer and this thanks to the action of fibers, resistant starch and alpha-galactosides (prebiotics) which, reaching the colon, are fermented by beneficial bacteria, stimulating their growth and causing the formation of different compounds such as butyrate, acetate and propionate which act by improving colon health and reducing the risk of cancer in this area.
Hulled and whole lentils: differences
Lentils belong to the legume family. On the market we find the “normal” lentils (also called wholemeal) which have the whole pod and the hulled lentils which have only the inner part of the seed because it is deprived of the outer part.
This difference determines that whole lentils have a higher content of dietary fiber and a longer cooking time than hulled lentils. Despite this, for some people, the consumption of whole lentils can cause intestinal swelling caused by the fermentation of the fiber. In this case it is preferable to use hulled lentils which, being already devoid of the outer skin, are more digestible and limit this unpleasant effect. On the other hand, in the case of diabetes, the integral version should be preferred since, due to the higher fiber content, it reduces glycemic peaks.
Lentils: how many to eat
Lentils are legumes and as such it is recommended to consume at least 3 or 4 portions per week, possibly alternating with other legumes to further vary your diet. The ideal portion to obtain all the benefits seen above is 150 g for fresh or frozen lentils, 30-50 g for dry lentils and 50 g for flour.
Lentils: how to use and store them
Before seeing some tips for using lentils, it is good to remember that, whenever possible, legumes in tins should be avoided as they are rich in sodium (added to the preservation liquid) and nickel (due to the erosion of the metal container). If for convenience you want to buy them ready to use, it is better to opt for frozen legumes or in glass jars but I recommend that you drain and rinse them well before use.
If you prefer to consume dried lentils, here are some tips for preparation: Legumes are very rich in B vitamins, but these vitamins are water-soluble and are easily lost during soaking and cooking in water. The addition of lemon juice, exactly one tablespoon (10 grams) per liter of water, increases the retention of B vitamins at the end of cooking. The soaking water should be thrown away because it contains phytates and purines, toxic substances favoring the appearance of uric acid in the blood.
Apart from New Year’s Eve, lentils can be regularly included in our diet, here are some practical tips:
- All legumes, including lentils, can be used to make delicious vegan or vegan burgers. A little imagination is enough and the result will be extraordinarily delicious !;
- Combine the lentils with a cereal; you will cover your total daily protein requirement;
- Use lentils to create a peasant soup with cereals, vegetables and legumes;
- Lentils are also excellent cold, added to cereal salads or mixed salads;
- The pulp of lentils or the flour of these legumes can be used in confectionery preparations to replace wheat flour!
Did you know that sprouting lentils is a great way to further improve the nutritional quality of these legumes? This is because soaking and fermentation reduce the antinutrient content!
Once purchased, lentils should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry and dark place, in this way they will keep for up to 12 months. Once cooked, they should be kept in the refrigerator for a maximum of a few days.
Lentils: contraindications and potential negative effects
Although lentils are great for health and a good alternative to animal protein, they are free from contraindications and their consumption can cause unpleasant side effects. In particular, eating lentils, especially in large quantities, could cause:
- Risk of kidney stones: A study, showed that legumes contain high concentrations of oxalates, which are responsible for the formation of kidney stones. Therefore, people with kidney stones should stay away from eating lentils;
- Antinutrients: lentils, like all plant seeds, contain a series of so-called antinutrients, these are substances that alter the absorption of nutrients and the most represented is phytic acid in which it compromises the absorption of iron and zinc from the digestive tract. The problem, however, disappears with cooking, sprouting or soaking;
- Flatulence and bloating: In some people, the consumption of legumes can cause unpleasant effects such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. It is a reaction caused by some compounds, the oligosaccharides of the fiber which, by fermenting in the intestine, form gas.
To reduce the effect of a bloated stomach caused by legumes, here are some tips:
- Start with small portions in order to evaluate subjective sensitivity;
- Choose shelled legumes. In the case of lentils, the most digestible ones seem to be the peeled red lentils;
- Pass them in the vegetable mill;
- Cook them with aromatic herbs such as bay leaves.