Lentils: A nutrient-dense food to enjoy often
Lentils are a nutrient-dense plant food that meet the USDA MyPlate nutritional profile to be both a vegetable and a protein. They are economical and shelf-stable, making them a must-have for every pantry.
Good nutrition is an important strategy to combat the leading causes of death in the U.S., which are heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. These chronic conditions that can lead to death are directly related to the way we eat; diet is also implicated in several other health conditions. Just as a poor diet can lead to negative health consequences, good food choices are foundational to the prevention of diet-related diseases. One way to eat healthfully is to regularly include lentils in the diet.
Lentils have a unique food profile
As part of its MyPlate healthy eating guide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating a variety of foods every day from the following five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy.
Lentils (like other legumes, including beans and peas) are unique, as they belong to both the vegetable and protein MyPlate food groups. This dual-designation makes lentils truly special and reflects the excellent health-promoting components that make them a nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide necessary vitamins and minerals, while having little added sugars, saturated fat and sodium.
Lentils are high in fiber
Like other foods in the vegetable group, lentils are an excellent source of dietary fiber. Fiber is a plant substance that adds bulk to the diet, provides a feeling of fullness and aids in weight control and healthy digestion. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 28-34 grams of daily fiber for men, and 22-28 grams for women. Still, more than 97 percent of men and 90 percent of women do not meet these fiber recommendations (Dietary Guidelines, 2020). According to the Dietary Guidelines, this underconsumption makes fiber a “dietary component of public health concern,” because low fiber intakes are associated with health problems.
With as much as eight grams of fiber per half-cup serving, cooked lentils can contribute a significant portion of the daily fiber recommendation, while delivering the benefits that a high-fiber diet can provide.
Lentils are a lean source of protein
As a plant, lentils may not be the first food that comes to mind in the protein group, which is more commonly equated with animal foods like meats, poultry and seafood. But like its animal counterparts, lentils are an excellent source of protein, a necessary nutrient for the building and maintenance of healthy bones, muscles and skin. As a bonus for weight control, lentils are lower in calories than animal proteins and contain no saturated fat.
With as much as 12 grams of protein in a half-cup serving, cooked lentils can be a smart choice for contributing toward the daily recommended 56 grams of protein for men and 46 grams for women.
Lentils are nutrient-packed, affordable and easy to prepare
Like many other vegetables, lentils are also an excellent source of folate and potassium. And, like other protein foods, they are an excellent source of iron and zinc, too. Lentils are naturally gluten-free, and additionally are low on the glycemic index, meaning they cause blood sugar to spike less quickly than other starches.
Lentils are inexpensive, and have a relatively long shelf-life, making them a convenient food to keep stocked in the pantry. They come in a variety of colors including black, brown, red and green. They can be purchased in dried form in bags, or already cooked in cans. Unlike other dried beans, dried lentils do not need to be soaked before preparing them.
To cook dried lentils, rinse using a fine mesh strainer while removing any debris from the lentils. Then cook in boiling water according to the package instructions. Cooked lentils can be used in soups, stews, chilis and curries; they can also be added to salads, mixed into burgers, or can be enjoyed for breakfast.
Here is a tasty lentil soup recipe from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, that delivers warm nourishment during the cold winter months – or anytime!
Hearty Lentil Soup
Start to finish: 60 minutes
- 5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- 1½ cups lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 1 cup brown rice, uncooked
- 2 (15 ounce) cans diced tomatoes with liquid
- 3 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup celery (~2 large stalks), chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- ½ teaspoon basil
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- 1 tablespoon parsley
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the broth, water, lentils, rice, tomatoes and tomato liquid, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer the soup for 45 to 55 minutes or until lentils are tender. Stir occasionally.
If necessary, thin the soup with additional hot broth or water.