Afraid of beans but wanting the fiber, minerals and vitamins they provide? Try lentils. They are a fantastic whole food perfect for people just starting on the road to a real food lifestyle. Why do I love and recommend lentils? They’re delicious, quick to cook, versatile as an ingredient and easy on your digestion. They’re also a power food that will fill you up while providing your body with a ton of needed nutrition.
Here’s what you need to know about lentils as a great introduction to legumes and pulses as a staple of your diet.
What’s So Great About Legumes & Pulses Anyway?
The healthiest and longest living cultures in the world eat beans. A long-term, global study found beans were the only dietary item consistent across age, race, sex and other factors when it came to predicting longevity and health. These nutrition-dense foods come packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and a host of other health benefits that include lowered risks for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. We should be eating roughly two cans a week or half a cup daily but Americans on average manage a paltry couple of pounds a year (which is like two to four cans in total). Our health is also in the gutter. Beans are an easy and cheap way to turn that around. Lentils are edible seeds from the legume family so they’re perfect as a starter bean.
Worried about gas? Putting more beans and pulses into your diet will actually up your health but not your gas levels. Two things on this that you might find surprising:
1. Studies done on bean consumption and gas found that gas levels actually didn’t rise in most cases. People just noticed the gas they already had since they were expecting gas as a byproduct of their bean eating. In other words, it’s usually all in our heads.
2. In the few cases where gas levels increased, within weeks the gas subsided as individuals adjusted to the new inclusion of beans into their diets. You have to remember that whenever we change our diets, our bodies have to adjust. We are chemical beings and what we eat or drink affects us. Take caffeine for example. When you try to quit caffeine, you feel the physical impact of withdrawal and may feel irritable or have headaches. Conversely, people who switch to caffeine also feel the side effects in jitteriness, alertness or even nausea. The same can happen with the introduction of any new food. Beans might initially cause gas but it will subside as you grow used to eating them. Here are simple ways to lessen or prevent discomfort when switching over to legumes.
Ease into it. If you’re worried about gas, start small. While research suggests half a cup daily at minimum, if you slowly add in beans to your diet over a couple of weeks rather than all at once you might find an easier transition. Start with a quarter cup, then up it to half a cup, then as much as you like.
Cans first. Canned beans and pulses are actually pre-cooked and pretty easy to digest because of this. Start there rather than preparing dried beans first thing and risk the digestive problems of eating undercooked beans. Dried beans are much healthier since canned versions usually come with sodium or calcium chloride (also a salt) and sometimes other preservatives we really don’t need. Nonetheless, cans are really convenient to cook with since they only require reheating rather than the hours of soaking and cooking for dried beans. If eating a bean salad, they don’t even need heating. Make sure to drain and rinse canned beans though no matter how you are going to use them.
Lentils Are a Super-food
So what’s so great about lentils themselves? First off, they don’t require soaking and cook quickly. That makes them an easy choice over other dried beans. They’re a versatile cooking ingredient as well, going great with rice and other whole grains or as an ingredient in soups or curries. Also, they are incredibly cheap! You can usually buy a one pound bag for a dollar. Nutritionally, though, they are powerhouses (1).
Lentils are often categorized by their color, which can range from yellow and red to green, brown or black. Each lentil type has its own unique composition of antioxidants and phytochemicals (2). They’re all packed with B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and potassium. Lentils are made up of over 25% protein, which makes them an excellent meat alternative. They’re also a great source of iron, a mineral that is sometimes lacking in vegetarian diets (1, 3).
Though different types of lentils may vary slightly in their nutrient contents, one cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils generally provides about (4):
- Calories: 230
- Carbs: 39.9 grams
- Protein: 17.9 grams
- Fat: 0.8 grams
- Fiber: 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
Lentils are high in fiber, which supports regular bowel movements and the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Eating lentils can improve your overall gut function (5).
Lentils are also rich in polyphenols . These are a category of health-promoting phytochemicals (1). Some of the polyphenols in lentils are known to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects (6, 7, 8). One test-tube study found that lentils were able to inhibit the production of inflammation-promoting molecules (9). In addition, when tested in the lab, the polyphenols in lentils were able to stop cancer cell growth, especially on cancerous skin cells (6). The polyphenols in lentils may also play a part in improving blood sugar levels (1, 10, 11).
Eating lentils is associated with an overall lower risk of heart disease, as it has positive effects on several risk factors (1, 13). One 8-week study in 48 overweight or obese people with type 2 diabetes found that eating a one-third cup (60 grams) of lentils each day increased levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and significantly reduced levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (14).
Lentils may also help lower your blood pressure. A study in rats revealed that those eating lentils had greater reductions in blood pressure levels compared to those given either peas, chickpeas or beans (15). Furthermore, proteins in lentils may be able to block the substance angiotensin I-converting enzyme (ACE), which normally triggers blood vessel constriction and thereby increases your blood pressure (16, 17).
High levels of homocysteine is another risk factor for heart disease. These can increase when your dietary folate intake is insufficient. As lentils are a great source of folate, it’s believed that they may help prevent excess homocysteine from accumulating in your body (13).
Finally, being overweight or obese increases your risk of heart disease, but eating lentils may help lower your overall food intake. They’re very filling and appear to keep your blood sugar levels steady (10, 18, 19).
Lentils, Lentils, Lentils!
We are chemical beings and what we eat matters. Everything we consume effects our bodies and brains. Lentils are a wonderful super-food that nourish us in a number of ways. They’re also incredibly easy to cook with, cheap, and best of all really tasty! We should all be eating more beans. If you’re looking for an easy legume to start incorporating into your diet, the humble lentil is a champion. Start cooking with these lovely little gems today and watch your health soar.
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