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A Brief History Of Lentils- The Benefits Of Adding Lentils In Your Diet – Nutritional Benefits of LentilsLentils Side EffectsAre There Any?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word, “lentil?” Does it immediately ring a bell? If it does, then do you have some inside your refrigerator?

It turns out that lentils are one of the healthiest foods in the world. It is part of the legumes food group and one the best plant sources for protein. It is also a favorite among health advocates and those who want to lose weight the healthy way.

What exactly can you get from eating lentils? Why is it even considered as one of the world’s healthiest foods?

Keep reading to find out.

Lentils, in a Nutshell

Lentils are edible seeds that belong to the legume family, just like pinto beans and chickpeas. They grow in pods with one or two lentil seeds on each pod. It also has lens-shaped edible seeds that contain macro and micronutrients.

Scientifically known as Lens culinaris, lentils are a common food in many Asian and North African cuisine. As of this writing, Canada is the top producer of lentils in the world with 1.99 million metric tons. This is followed by India with 1.1 million metric tons.

Lentils have different kinds. These are:

  • Brown – This is the most common type of lentil. You can see it readily available in the supermarket and widely used in soups and stews.
  • Green – This variant is also as common as brown lentils. Apart from soups and stews, you can also use this as a spread or for pureed dips since it has nuttier flavor.
  • Yellow Or Red – This lentil variant has a milder taste and is often found in Indian curry dishes. It also works best for dishes that are in need of thickening.
  • Black Beluga – If you prefer flavor, then this variant is recommended. They are small, with thick skin, and works well with salad or soup. Still, be careful with cooking method and keep it under 30 minutes maximum. Anything that goes beyond that will make the lentils fall apart.
  • French – Also known as Lentilles de Puy, French lentils are ideal as a side dish or mixing it in salads. This variant has thick skin and still retains its shape even when cooked.

Despite being in the same family, these lentil variants have a different but unique composition of phytochemicals and antioxidants. Flavor slightly differs from each other, too, but generally, lentil has a somewhat nutty flavor.

Lentils History

Who started growing lentils? Experts are unsure but many believed lentils originated in Central Asia. During the pre-historic times, lentils were among the first foods cultivated and consumed in large proportions.

Around 8,000 years ago, lentil seeds were found at archaeological sites in the Middle East. The Catholic’s Holy Bible also mentioned lentils as the item Jacob traded to Esau for his birthright.

Before the 1st century AD and at the time where cultural tribes were migrating and exploring the world, lentils were traditionally eaten with wheat and barley in Africa and Europe. Then, it was introduced to India. Indians developed a highly regarded lentil dish known as dal. Even Catholics were using lentils as a staple food during Lent.  

Since then, lentils became a popular food because of its many health benefits.

Lentils Nutrition Facts

The nutritional benefits and corresponding quantities of lentils vary, depending on the type. Nevertheless, there are common nutritional components among them.

This includes:

  • Molybdenum
  • Folate
  • Carbohydrates
  • Dietary fiber, which ensures healthy gut bacteria and promotes regular bowel movement
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Vitamin B6
  • Phosphorus
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Vitamin B1
  • Pantothenic acid

Among all of these, lentils are an excellent source of folate and molybdenum. Lentils also provide sufficient supply of fiber copper, and phosphorus. Further, one cup or 198 grams only has 230 calories.

Protein is also among its main nutritional component, thereby making it a trusted source of protein storage. Globulin is lentils’ predominant protein as well as adequate quantity of albumin.

Aside from these nutrients and minerals, did you know that lentils are rich in phytochemicals, too? In fact, lentils have the highest phenolic content compared to others under the legume family. Some of the polyphenols found in lentils are flavonoid and non-flavonoid group, specifically but not limited to:

Six kinds of lentil in circle bowls on a rustic old wood background, shot from directly above: Brown lentil, green lentil, red lentil, green pea, split pea, black lentil
  • Procyanidin
  • Flavanols
  • Coumarin
  • Benzophenones
  • Phenolic acids
  • Lignan
  • Hydroxybenzoic acid

Lentils Benefits

The nutritional profile of lentils is impressive. Still, what exactly can lentils do?

Rich In Polyphenols

Polyphenols are category of plant compounds that comes with powerful health benefits. The good news is lentils are full of that.

Procyanidin and flavanols, two types of polyphenols found in lentils, have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuro-protective effects. This could also prevent the production of cyclooxygenase-2, a type of molecule that promotes inflammation.

Aside from this, did you known that the polyphenols in lentils could help improve one’s blood sugar levels?

According to a study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, rats that ate lentils recorded a decrease in blood sugar levels. Experts have yet to uncover how exactly polyphenols affect the blood sugar but so far, this has been helpful. 

Good For The Heart

According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. In fact, 647,000 Americans die from heart disease every year.

There are several reasons why you will develop a cardiovascular condition. One of them is poor diet.

Thankfully, lentils live up to its title as one of the healthiest foods because it also protects your heart.

According to a study published in Health Promotion Perspectives, lentils had positive feedback in terms of the participants’ cardiovascular condition. In the said study, overweight or obese individuals with type 2 diabetes were asked to include 60 grams of lentils every day.

As a result, there was an increase in HDL or good cholesterol. At the same time, LDL or bad cholesterol significantly reduced.

Apart from the cholesterol levels, lentils also have a positive effect on blood pressure, which is also crucial in keeping your heart healthy. Based on an animal study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, rats that ate lentils recorded a significant reduction in blood pressure levels.

Why is this possible?

The protein content in lentils helps block angiotensin I-converting enzyme or ACE. This is a type of substance that triggers constriction of the blood vessels, which eventually leads to an increase in blood pressure.

Apparently, it doesn’t end there. Lentils are a great source of folate, which is also helpful in keeping your heart healthy.

A study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition said that lentils prevent too much homocysteine from accumulating in the body. Homocysteine is among the risk factors of heart disease, which could increase due to a lack of folate.

A Good Source Of Fiber

Fiber is important in one’s diet. From preventing constipation to keeping you fuller longer throughout the day, fiber does it all.

Generally, plant foods are rich in fiber. This includes lentils.

Like other beans, lentils are rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and non-soluble fiber. When taken, lentils could make you feel fuller longer and at the same time, help you lose your appetite. As a result, overall calorie intake is reduced, too.

That’s not all. As a good source of fiber, lentils also keep your digestive tract healthy. This could prevent constipation as well as ensure regular bowel movement.

Just make sure to eat in moderation. Although fiber is good for the body, too much could lead to constipation.

Ensures Proper Blood Flow

Blood circulation is among the most important functions in the body. When the blood flows properly, it is able to supply oxygen not just to the brain but also to other parts of the body.

There are several ways to ensure unrestricted blood flow. One of them is by eating iron-rich foods.

Did you know that one cup of lentils has 6.6 milligrams of iron?

This means when you add one cup of lentils in your daily diet, you are sure that your body receives sufficient supply of oxygen. This ensures proper blood flow as well.

Folate, Especially For The Pregnant

You know that folate is among lentils’ top nutrient. If you are expecting or planning to get pregnant, adding lentils in your grocery list is helpful because of its folate content.

Folate is crucial to prevent neural tube defects in newborns. It also reduces the risk of developing gestational diabetes. In fact, a study published in Diabetes Care reported that pregnant women who took more folate during pregnancy less likely developed gestational diabetes.

Still, take it easy on your intake. CDC recommended 400 micrograms of folate or folic acid everyday is advisable.

Helps Fight Fatigue

Lentils are good source of iron. Aside from ensuring proper blood flow, iron also helps prevent fatigue.

Fatigue is affecting millions of people around the world. Sadly, overcoming fatigue is not as simple as getting sleep, although it helps. Diet could also play an important factor in combatting this condition.

Thankfully, lentils are good source of iron. Specifically, it provides nonheme iron, which is an essential form of iron recommended for those who are not meat-eaters. When you have sufficient supply of iron, fatigue won’t be a cause of concern.

Just make sure you combine lentils with foods rich in vitamin C like berries, citrus fruits, and peppers. This ensures proper absorption as well.

Anti-Cancer Properties

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 9.6 million people worldwide died from cancer in 2018. Although there are several factors that could lead to cancer, one risk factor is diet.

It’s a different case for lentils. Apart from folate and iron, lentils are also a source of selenium. It helps decrease tumor growth rate and at the same time, stimulates the production of T cells. T cells not only boost your immune response to infection but also kill diseases, including cancer. This is helpful against prostate, colorectal, skin, bladder, and lung cancer.

Further studies are needed to check how effective lentils are when it comes to cancer. Still, it won’t help if you increase your intake of lentils since it is also rich in antioxidants, which protects your body against free radicals.

Lentils Side Effects

Lentils come with many health benefits. Does this mean it is safe?

Generally, eating lentils is safe. Just like other kitchen ingredients, you need to consume this moderately since anything eaten in excess is not good for the body.

One of the most common side effects of eating too much lentils is flatulence. This condition happens when there is a buildup of gas in your digestive system, thereby causing abdominal discomfort.

Although flatulence can be attributed to various reasons, one of them is by eating too much beans. The fiber in lentils is hard to break down, which could lead to gas and cramping, especially if you ate too many.

Apart from flatulence, constipation could also be another side effect due to too much fiber intake. To prevent this, make sure you increase your water intake every time you eat lentils. Eat in small amounts as well and then gradually increase your intake. This will give your gut some time to adjust to fiber.

Another possible side effect is digestive concerns, especially for those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS. Lentils have FODMAPs or fermentable carbohydrates, which could adversely affect those with IBS. If you have IBS and you insist on eating lentils, then go for canned lentils instead since it has low FODMAP.

Nonetheless, the biggest concern for lentils is that it contains anti-nutrients that could potentially impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. These anti-nutrients include:

  • Trypsin Inhibitor – This blocks the production of enzymes that are responsible for breaking down protein inside the body. Lentils have a low amount of trypsin, so this wouldn’t pose a serious threat and may not cause problems on protein digestion.
  • Lectin – This anti-nutrient has anti-cancer capabilities. Unfortunately, it could resist digestion and potentially binds with other nutrients, thereby preventing absorption. As a precaution and to reduce lectins from lentils, soak lentil overnight and then discard the water.
  • Tannins – This component also binds with proteins, thereby preventing your body from absorbing nutrients. There are also concerns that tannin may impair iron absorption. According to a study published in Current Development in Nutrition, this is not a cause of concern.
  • Phytic Acid – Also known as phytates, phytic acid could bind minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc, thereby reducing absorption. Despite this, it turns out that phytic acid has anti-cancer properties.

Does this mean lentils are not safe to eat? Not necessarily. It helps to dehull and cook the seeds first because it could suppress the effects of these anti-nutrients. Soaking lentils will also reduce anti-nutrient properties.

More importantly, eat lentils in moderation. Take it easy on your intake and see how your body reacts first before you increase your consumption.

Lentils Storage

At this point, lentils have established itself as among the healthiest foods in the world. Although they are readily available, proper storage is still important to ensure longer shelf life.

Here are tips to remember when storing uncooked lentils:

  • Store lentils in airtight container or sealed package. This allows the lentils to last for up to one year.
  • Place lentils in cool, dry, and dark area.
  • Avoid exposure to heat or wet environment.
  • Do not mix lentils that were purchased in different times. The condition of lentils will be different, which means cooking time will vary as well.

For cooked lentils, you can put them inside a sealed container and store it inside the refrigerator. This can give you a supply for three days to one week. If you want longer shelf life, then you can store cooked lentils in the freezer up to six months.

You will notice that over time, the color of lentils will fade. There’s no need to worry since the flavor is not affected for up to one year.

Make sure to check the lentils first before using it. If you noticed insect activity or the lentils look damp, then get rid of those immediately.

Lentils Recipe / Usage

Cooking lentils is easy since pre-soaking is not a requirement. Simply wash them in cool running water and get rid of small debris, if any. Then, add three cups of water for every cup of lentil and salt. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the type of lentil you used. Red lentils will be cooked for 20 minutes while the green ones take longer, about 30 minutes.

Nonetheless, take note the difference in cooking time since it will depend on the consistency you want to achieve.

After preparation, you can now toss cooked lentils in your favorite dish. Below are some ideas you can try:

  • For salads, it is best to use French lentils because of its ability to retain its shape. Dress them with olive oil, vinegar, cheese, and you’re good to go.
  • You can also add lentils in noodles. If you have soba noodles at home, you can put lentils, leeks, and broccoli in it. Add garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper for flavor.
  • Make Moroccan lentil soup. After cooking lentils, toss your preferred diced veggies and then season with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, soy sauce, cumin, coriander, and turmeric.
  • Use lentils instead of beans when the recipe calls for it.
  • Make your own lentil dip. Simply smash cooked lentils and then add garlic powder, onion, chopped tomatoes, and chili powder. Mix well.
  • Make the good ol’ lentil soup. Simply combine uncooked lentils with your favorite herbs and veggies as well as stock of choice. Let it simmer until cooked.

The good news is lentils can be easily incorporated in your diet. However you want to use it, you are sure that you’ll get the essential nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.

Lentils Alternatives

People with diabetes or cardiovascular conditions will benefit the most from plant-based protein sources like lentils. Generally, lentils are widely available in the supermarket and health food stores. You can even get canned lentils, which surprisingly, have not lost its nutritional value.

What if you ran out?

Here are equally nutritious substitute for lentils:

  • Beans – This is the top recommended alternative to lentils. Similar to lentils, beans are also rich in protein, iron, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. Go for chickpeas, Garbanzo beans, pinto, black, lima, or navy beans when the recipe calls for lentils.
  • Soy – This is a good substitute for lentils, especially if you are vegetarian. The good thing about soy is that unlike lentils, the former provides complete, high-quality protein.
  • Peas – Yellow and green peas are part of the legume family, thereby making this a good alternative to lentils. It is also rich in protein and antioxidants just like lentils. You can use peas to replace lentils for soup dishes.
  • Sourgum – This is a gluten-free grain that can be an excellent alternative to lentils. However, only use sourgum to replace lentils if it will simply be mixed with the dish sans mashing.
  • Tempeh – This ingredient is also a good alternative to lentils since it could be crumbled into pieces. Nevertheless, only use tempeh as a replacement when lentils is not the main ingredient.
  • Fish – Yes, you read that right. If you want to enjoy the health benefits of lentils without aiming for being a vegetarian, then fish can be a good alternative. It is an excellent source of protein and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Go for salmon, herring, and tuna since these helps lower your heart risk, too.

The Bottom Line

Whether you choose brown, green, red, black, or even French variant, one thing is for sure: lentils are good for your body. They are rich in essential minerals and nutrients, particularly polyphenols, thereby making it a superfood.

It is easy to prepare, cook, and add in your favorite dishes, too.

Still, take note of the side effects. Flatulence and constipation are the most common side effects but what you should remember is that lentils have anti-nutrients. Make sure you soak and cook them thoroughly to reduce the effect of these anti-nutrients.

Overall, lentils are a must have in your kitchen.

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