Lentils form a staple of many cuisines around the world, from the Middle East to East Asia, from North America to Europe, everyone loves this legume.
Due to their high protein content, alongside the myriad other nutritional benefits to be had from eating them, lentils are a firm favourite in many plant based diets: vegans and veggies the world over quite rightly include a great deal of these little legumes in their meal plans.
But what is it about lentils that makes them so appealing? And are they all that they are cracked up to be?
Let’s break it down, with my lentils 101.
What are lentils?
Lentils are edible and highly nutritious legumes. Lentil plants, indigenous to western and central Asia, are well known for their distinctive, disk shaped seeds that we’re talking about here today. They grow to around sixteen inches in height, and the seeds grow in pairs in pods.
Where are lentils from?
Split lentils, known as dal, are common in South Asian cuisine. Their hulls are often removed, and the lentils are boiled and eaten with rice or bread. Prepared in this way, lentils are a staple dish throughout India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Today, as a food crop, the majority of the world’s lentil production is in Canada, India and Australia.
Lentils: a brief history
Lentils are the oldest pulse crop known to man, and amongst the earliest of all the domesticated crops. Carbonised remains have been found alongside human settlements dating back as far as 11,000 BCE in Greece.
They are also mentioned in the Bible: Jacob trades lentils to Esau for his birthright, and they form part of the bread recipe that was made during the Jewish peoples’ captivity at the hands of the Babylonians.
Lentils were traditionally eaten with barley and wheat for millennia, as these three foods originated in the same region. From here, they spread out to Africa and Europe through migration and exploration.
They were introduced into the Indian subcontinent before the first century BCE – today, they are still a highly popular staple in the region, as highly spiced Indian dal has grown in fame and admiration throughout the world.
Lentils have proven similarly popular in many Catholic societies, as they have long been a dietary staple during the Lenten fast. Today, many Christian forums and congregations recommend lentils to their followers in the run up to Easter as a nutritious meat alternative. (1)
The lentil has many different names all over the world. There is, of course, the English lentil, alongside the Arabic adas, the Turkish mercimek, the Amharic messer, the Hindi massur, and the Japanese hiramame. The first use of the word lens to label a precise genus was by the botanist Tournefort, in the sixteenth century.
Different types of lentil
There are many different types of lentil, and it would be nigh impossible to list them all in one article. However, amongst this varied panoply, there are a few which stand out, either for their global popularity, ease of cooking, or their versatility:
- Brewers are large brown lentils are often considered the ‘normal’ lentil in the US
- Beluga are black, lens-shaped, lentils are named for resemblance to beluga caviar
- Brown/Spanish pardina
- French green
- Puy lentils
- Yellow/tan lentils (red inside)
- Red Chief (decorticated yellow lentils)
- Eston Green (small green)
- Richlea (medium green)
- Laird (large green)
- Masoor (brown-skinned lentils which are orange inside)
- Petite crimson/red (decorticated masoor lentils)
- Macachiados (big Mexican yellow lentils)
Lentils: some quick facts
Before I dive into the nutritional content, uses and vagaries of lentils, let’s look at some quick facts so as to better acquaint ourselves with these little powerhouses:
- Lentils are a great source of plant based protein. When combined with grains like rice, they make up a complete protein, as I will go into in more detail below.
- Lentils have been eaten by humans since Neolithic times. Seeds have been found in the Middle East that date back more than eight thousand years, and lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to the third century BCE.
- The ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes was a big fan of lentils. He went so far as to call lentil soup the ‘sweetest of delicacies.’
- Lentils are considered to be a food for mourners in the Jewish faith. Their round shape symbolizes the circle of life and gives pause for reflection for those newly grieving.
- Lentils don’t exactly have a reputation for grandeur. For centuries, they were considered to be a poor man’s meat. In Catholic societies, people would eat lentils during lent when they couldn’t afford fish.
- However, they have been eaten in the highest of social circles. Marie Leszczynska, wife of King Louis XV of France, made them fashionable amongst royalty in the eighteenth century. They were even nicknamed ‘the queen’s lentils.’
- Lentils come in many varieties, and in many colours. The most common type of lentils eaten in the west are green and brown. These are the best varieties at retaining their shape during cooking.
- Lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking, unlike most other beans, so they are a quick and convenient foodstuff with which to work.
Cheap to buy and easy to find, lentils are one of the most cost-efficient ways to add good quality, high protein bulk to any dish. But what exactly is it about this humble little legume that makes it so beneficial to your diet?
Lentils are rich in complex, slow burning carbohydrates that will keep you feeling fuller for longer, whilst allowing you to power through your day with plenty of energy. They rank low on the glycaemic index, meaning that they are good for a diabetic diet- or for anybody looking to limit blood sugar spikes in general.
As well as this, lentils are high in fibre, which will bring with it a host of health benefits (more on this later), alongside being low in fat and overall caloric intake.
Lentils’ high protein content also makes them a great option if you’re looking for a plant based alternative to more traditional protein sources.
Alone, lentils are not a complete protein – they do not contain the full range of amino acids that the body requires, unlike, say, an animal based protein which does. However, when combined with a whole grain, they do: the full range of amino acids will be present in your dish, meaning that the quality of the protein is on par with any meat or dairy.
That’s great for quality; but how about quantity of protein? Well, good news here, too.
Lentils are over 25% protein, meaning that every spoonful will be loaded with it. A half cup of cooked lentils provides twelve grams of protein. That’s roughly 1/5 of most people’s recommended daily intake.
To complement their macronutrient profile, lentils also boast an impressive array of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals.) They contain a healthy injection of B vitamins, alongside zinc, magnesium and potassium.
They are also a good source of iron which, given the lack of red meat, can sometimes be hard to come by on a plant based diet.
Though different varieties may of course differ, overall you can expect a 200g portion of cooked lentils to give you something like:
- Calories: 230
- Carbs: 39.9 grams
- Protein: 17.9 grams
- Fat: 0.8 grams
- Fibre: 15.6 grams
- Thiamine: 22% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
- Niacin: 10% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 18% of the RDI
- Folate: 90% of the RDI
- Pantothenic acid: 13% of the RDI
- Iron: 37% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 18% of the RDI
- Phosphorous: 36% of the RDI
- Potassium: 21% of the RDI
- Zinc: 17% of the RDI
- Copper: 25% of the RDI
- Manganese: 49% of the RDI
Health benefits of lentils
Lentils provide a range of health benefits when included as part of a balanced diet. From heart healthy habits to improved digestive systems, there is a lot to be gained from consuming them on a regular basis.
Read on to find out the top health benefits that lentils have to offer:
Their high fibre content is good for your digestive system
As you should be aware by now, lentils are very high in fibre.
Among other things, fibre helps to support regular, healthy bowel movements. Eating a portion of lentils every few days can help to increase the weight of your stools as well as improving the overall functioning of your gut.
The high fibre will also aid the growth of healthy gut bacteria and will be of particular benefit to anybody managing their blood sugar; the fibre stops blood sugar levels from soaring after eating.
They are good for your heart
Over the course of several long range studies, researchers have found that high legume diets can be responsible for a tremendous 82% reduction in risk of heart related conditions. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine backs this up: consumption of high fibre foods such as lentils help to prevent heart disease. (2)
Participants who ate the most fibre over nearly twenty years – around 20g per day – had a 12% lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and an 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to those who ate around 5g daily.
These benefits were exaggerated in those eating the most water-soluble fibre, with a 15% lower risk of CHD than those eating lower levels of fibre.
However, lentils’ heart health benefits do not rest solely in their fibre content. They also contain high amounts of folate and magnesium. Folate will help to lower levels of homocysteine – a dangerous compound that damages artery walls and is considered a significant risk factor for heart disease – converting it into much more benign cysteine and methionine.
Meanwhile, higher levels of magnesium will allow veins and arteries to relax, lessening resistance, improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. Oxygen and nutrients will be more easily delivered around the body with this increased blood flow.
Studies have shown that dietary magnesium deficiency is associated with heart attacks. Furthermore, a lack of magnesium immediately after a patient suffers a heart attack can promote heart injury from free radicals. (3)
Finally, lentils contain a broad range of phytochemicals – beneficial plant compounds which protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
That’s four reasons that lentils are good for your heart – few foodstuffs can boast such an impressive range of healthy heart promoting aspects.
Lentils can help to keep your blood sugar levels stable
Alongside beneficial effects on the heart and digestive system, the soluble fibre delivered by lentils is crucial in helping to stabilize blood sugar levels.
If you are trying to keep your blood sugar levels under control – perhaps due to insulin resistance, hypoglycaemia, diabetes or a desire to lose weight as efficiently as possible – lentils could be key to your success.
Legumes like lentils can help to stabilise your blood sugar levels at the same time as delivering slow burning energy from low glycaemic carbohydrates and high protein delivery. Studies have shown that high fibre diets and blood sugar levels are strongly interrelated. (4)
In comparing two groups of people with type 2 diabetes who were given differing quantities of high fibre food, it was found that the group eating the higher amount had lower levels of both blood sugar and insulin. Their overall cholesterol was also reduced by about 7%, with their VLDL (the most damaging form of cholesterol) down by 12.5%.
Lentils’ high iron content gives you energy
If you are following a plant based nutrition plan, iron intake can be a little tricky. It’s easy enough to get enough iron into your diet, but you need to put a bit of planning into it. Luckily, there are some good sources out there, and lentils are one of the best.
Iron is a key element of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen from your respiratory system to every cell in your body. It will also form a key part of the enzyme systems involved with metabolic rate and energy production.
Keeping iron levels up will help you to stay energetic, especially when combined with the complex carbohydrates that lentils boast. Menstruating women and anybody taking part in regular physical exertion will be especially at risk of low iron levels and will be particular beneficiaries of increasing those levels.
Lentils: a buyers’ guide
Dried and fresh lentils can be bought either in cheap packets of 500g-1kg, or from bulk bins in decent whole food shops. Either way, make sure that the lentils are free of evidence of moisture and that they are whole and not cracked – this will ensure that you get the freshest product possible.
You will also be able to find canned lentils in a lot of shops, online, or at many natural food markets. Canned vegetables will usually be a big no-no: they will have lost a lot of their nutritional value and will quite often boast a high sodium content.
However, canned lentils are fine. Canned vegetables lose much of their nutritional value to the long cooking process that they go through. Lentils will always naturally take a longer cooking process, so little is lost, and they are usually left unflavoured/ unsalted.
This being said, make sure to actively look out for canned lentils that contain no additives or added salt, and go for organic whenever and wherever possible.
Ways of consuming lentils
I will give you a few of my favourite lentil recipes later on in this article, but for the moment let it suffice that there are far more numerous ways to use lentils than you might think. They really are a more versatile ingredient than a lot of people assume.
Use them as part of a rich, hearty soup
There is a good reason that a lot of people keep a big old packet of dried lentils in their pantry at all times: winter hits, those long, cold night settle in, and a decent soup, stew or broth is called for.
Of course, I will give you some of my favourite recipes for lentil soups (below) but for now, if you try no other form of lentil dish, you should try them like this. Dig out that stock pot or electric soup maker!
Use them as (very substantial!) fillings
This is particularly good for those following a plant based diet, wanting to add a healthy twist to more traditional, meat based dishes.
Boiled, spiced and combined with onion, garlic and seasoning, lentils will make a fantastic alternative to meat in anything from fajitas to bolognaise to casseroles, from cottage pie filling to a lovely topping for baked potatoes.
Liven up your salads
Lightly cooked and seasoned, lentils are a great addition to any salad. Either as an accompaniment to a larger meal, or as a way to turn your humble salad into a more substantial, filling main event, lentils will give you what you want. Puy lentils are particularly good, though any variety will work well.
Satisfy your sweet tooth
No, really… lentils are not just for savoury meals, though this is how they have most often traditionally been used. They also deserve a small mention for their use in deserts.
Combine them with spices, dried fruit like sultanas, and your favourite grains (oats work best!) to make some cookies. Alternatively, red lentils can make a good rosy pudding (recipe below.)
Try combining puy lentils with nuts, fresh fruit and sugar to make a delicious, comforting crumble filling.
With the rapid rise of alternative, gluten free flours in recent years, it may come as no surprise that lentils have their own offering to contribute.
Red lentil flour is simplicity itself. Red lentils are lightly roasted and then ground down into a fine flour: nothing added, nothing taken away, just healthy lentils, honestly cooked.
This is a great one to use if you’re looking to keep gluten levels low and protein and fibre levels high (and, really, who isn’t?) It will work just as well in sweet or savoury dishes.
Should you sprout lentils?
Sprouting lentils has become ever more popular in recent years, and there are many beneficial reasons to use sprouted lentils. (5)
The sprouting of lentils actually signifies the beginning of the germination process, which changes the lentils’ make up. Part of this includes an increase in the levels of vitamins and minerals contained in them: B vitamins and carotene see a particular rise.
The sprouting process also neutralizes lentils’ phytic acid, making them easier to digest. This means that you will both be more comfortable and more able to absorb the lentils’ nutritional content.
So, it sounds good so far: but how do you go about sprouting your own lentils?
How to sprout lentils
Begin by soaking your dry lentils in water overnight. Use a jar or a pan – whatever appropriately sized receptacle you have to hand.
Remember that lentils will typically triple in size, so ensure that your receptacle is big enough to take the extra volume, and that you add plenty of water. Place a tea towel or similar cloth over the top and secure with a rubber band.
When the lentils are fully soaked, drain the excess water. Then place the cloth back over the container and leave it to sit, making sure to keep it out of direct sunlight throughout. Every twelve hours, add some more water to the jar, mix and then drain it out again.
You should begin to see little tails sprouting from your lentils with 24-36 hours; they should be ready after about 48 hours. At this point, they are done. Spread them out on another cloth, or on some paper towels, to let them dry.
Store them in an airtight container, refrigerated, until you are ready to use them.
How to use sprouted lentils
Sprouted lentils have a good range of uses and are a tasty and nutritious addition to any meal or recipe.
They are also good as a snack, either plain or with a little salt and pepper added – in this way, they make a great mid afternoon nibble, their complex carbs tiding you over until dinner time and their protein content giving you a welcome boost to your daily intake.
Salads will always be better off for having a few sprouted lentils tossed into them or used as a topping, beefing an otherwise quite insubstantial dish up to make it far heartier and more satisfying.
Other than using them as an ingredient in their own right, sprouted lentils can also be used in the same way that unsprouted lentils would be. Simply swap out the lentils from any recipe and use sprouted lentils instead – remembering to account for their new weight and volume when weighing out quantities.
Now for the best bit: let me show you some tasty, healthy ways to enjoy all the benefits listed above in a handful of my favourite, delicious lentil recipes.
There aren’t many things more satisfying than a hot lentil stew on a cold autumnal or winter’s evening. This dish is hearty and warming, as well as being packed full of flavour and all the nutritional benefits that you would expect from a recipe packed with lentils and spices.
I told you that lentils could be used to make sweet desserts: well, the proof is in the pudding!
If you’re in need of an exotic, Middle Eastern themed dish, this sweet rose pudding will surely fit the bill. It’s made using red lentils, coconut milk, an array of aromatic spices and a load of dried fruits, and comes out unsurprisingly delicious.
This vegan lentil curry is simple to make, and it’s spicy whilst still retaining a great deal of creaminess, all thanks to the intense coconut flavour given by coconut cream.
Served with rice, it will also give you a complete protein source – it’s an all-round winner, and just happens to be delicious as well.
5 minute lentil dip
Are there any downsides to eating lentils?
Of course, as with anything, there can be down sides. With lentils, the cons usually come with over consumption. Limit yourself to just two or three servings per week and you should be fine. Over-indulge, and the following side effects might crop up.
Lentils’ high fibre contents may be a bit of a double edged sword.
Although incredibly beneficial to your gut health when taken in moderation, too many lentil servings can lead to increased flatulence and stomach pain. All that fibre will not be digested in the small intestine and so will broken down into gas in the large intestine instead.
Lentils also contain various antinutritional elements – like trypsin inhibitors, oligosaccharides and hemagglutinins. These cause excess flatulence when too much is consumed.
In particular, oligosaccharides are prebiotics. These are indigestible elements that increase the growth of good bacteria and can cause flatulence, stomach cramps and even intestinal discomfort from gas released during fermentation.
Lentils contain lysine, an essential amino acid that has a range of benefits, from aiding growth and conserving lean mass, to improving athletic performance and nitrogen preservation. However, taken in excess, lysine can also cause the development of gallstones, increased cholesterol levels and harm your kidneys.
Taken in high enough quantities, lysine can also cause stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
Lentils are a great source of potassium, a nutrient vital in its contributions to healthy heart, muscle and nerve function. They are also a great source of protein. However, too much of a good thing can be bad: excess potassium can enter the bloodstream and cause hyperklamia.
Hyperklamia can proceed with no symptoms shown. However, often symptoms such as weakness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat and respiratory issues, vomiting, tingling and loss of sensation in the nerves may be present. High potassium or high protein diets can cause hyperklamia, and lentils are a rich source of both.
If you’re eating a diet rich in lentils, the chances are that you will be OK. The quantities consumed have to be significant for any of the above symptoms to present themselves. However, if any of these sound familiar to you – if you are experiencing any of them – it is always advisable to consult a qualified medical practitioner.
How to store your lentils
Whether they be fresh, cooked, frozen, or dried, you’ll want to know how to store lentils…
Fresh & cooked lentils
You will want to keep your lentils in a cool, dark place, free from moisture and ideally in an airtight container. They will be able to keep for up to a year like this.
If you bought several lots of lentils at different times, be sure to store them separately. They will be at different stages of dryness and will therefore need different cooking times when you’re ready to use them.
If you’re storing cooked lentils, place them in a covered container and refrigerate them. They will be good for about three days kept like this.
Some types of lentil, most notably brown and green lentils, will freeze well. Place them into a plastic container and put them in the freezer. If you’re anticipating using them regularly, it will likely be a good idea to freeze separate batches so that you can only defrost what you need at any one time.
To defrost, simply place in the microwave for 2-3 minutes, or alternatively leave out at room temperature for a couple of hours.
Dried lentils are the easiest to store by a long way, which is why they have proven so popular. They will stay at best quality for up to three years if you keep them in a sealed container package or container, away from moisture and direct sunlight. However, after three years they will usually remain good – just not at their best.
Growing lentils at home
Lentils are really quite easy and simple to grow yourself. If you’re green fingered, enjoy trying new things in your garden, or simply want an abundant supply of lentils, try growing your own vines at home.
What you will be getting
Lentils are a hardy member of the pea family. They grow on sparse branched vines, typically achieving around 18-24 inches in height. The lentil vines will give you an attractive, light purple flower, similar to those found on peas.
The pods are small, flat and broad and each one contains one or two of the flat, round seeds that we are looking for: this is the ‘lentil’ that you will harvest for the dinner table.
You should plant 4 to 8 lentil plants per member of the household; this should yield enough to fill everyone’s bellies quite happily.
You will want your vines to be in full sunshine, so plant them appropriately. They will prefer a looser, rich, well-drained soil, preferably with a pH between 6-6.5, but will grow in poorer quality soil.
Plant your seed up to an inch deep and an inch apart. Space your rows between 18-24 inches apart to give them plenty of room to grow. If you’re using seedlings, plant them 5 inches apart to ensure appropriate air circulation and to protect against encroaching mildew.
Keep them evenly moist: lentils are more tolerant of drought than other beans, and you should not water them at all once their pods have grown fully and are beginning to dry.
Add a rich compost to your beds before seeding for best results, and side dress your plants with compost tea when they are 5 inches tall. Repeat once they are flowering.
Your lentils will grow best in cooler weather. Sow them in spring up to 3 weeks before the average date of the season’s last frost. Feel free to begin them indoors or in a green house before transplanting to their garden beds.
At 20 degrees Celsius, your lentil seeds will germinate in around 10 days. They will then require a further 80-110 days before coming to full harvest. Support them with a low trellis, as they like to climb, and protect them from bugs and frost with row covers: aphids and weevils will be a particular menace to your crop, so beware these little pests.
For dried lentil seeds, harvest your pods when they have matured and grown hardened: they will be ready after around 110 days from sowing. Do not shell your harvest until you’re ready to use the lentils. To use fresher lentils, more like snap beans, harvest a little earlier at around 70-80 days after sowing.
Potatoes and cucumbers make good companion plants for lentil vines. Avoid planting your lentils alongside garlic and onions.
Lentils 101… done!
So that’s me finished with lentils for the time being.
From dal to dips, we’ve had a look at some delicious ways to enjoy an ostensibly simple ingredient in a host of different ways. Lentils are a traditional staple of many world cuisines, and with the growth of nutritional data surrounding them, they are fast becoming a firm favourite with health conscious foodies everywhere.
Why not try out some of the recipe ideas above, or, better yet, share some of your own with us? There are always new ways of trying traditional foods and we would love to hear from you.
Don’t forget to share in the comments down below.
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
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- Andrew Weil MD | Cooking With Beans & Legumes | https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/anti-inflammatory-diet-pyramid/cooking-with-beans-legumes/
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