Move over, chickpeas: Lentils are officially the coolest legume. For the uninitiated, lentils are tiny round legumes — aka a seed that grows in a pod — that come in a variety of sizes and colors, including black, brown, yellow, red, or green. They’ve long been a staple in Indian cuisine as well as vegan cooking as a plant-based protein source. They’re low in fat, extremely nutrient-dense, and they pack in a lot of health benefits, including:
1. They’re full of polyphenols. Polyphenols are active compounds that fight against harmful agents in the body—everything from ultraviolet rays and radiation to heart disease and cancer. Lentils are a great way to get your polyphenol fix and have been linked to long lasting health benefits, including cardiovascular health and diabetes prevention.
2. They’re high in protein. Good news, vegans: One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein.
3. They’re a good source of iron. One cup of lentils has 6.6 milligrams of iron, which is about one-third of what you need for the entire day. Iron is super important for keeping oxygen pumping throughout your body.
4. They’re full of fiber. Virtually every health care provider preaches about the importance of fiber—especially related to digestive health and healthy weight maintenance. One cup of lentils has 15.6 grams of it, which is actually almost four times as much as a cup of raw kale.
5. Lentils are good for your bones. When it comes to bone health, dairy-laden products tend to hog the spotlight, but lentils are a great option too with 38 grams of calcium per cup.
6. They’re a good source of folic acid. Folic acid is an important nutrient to load up on all the time, but it’s especially important when you’re pregnant. Not getting enough can lead to serious birth defects. If pregnancy is not on your mind, folic acid support healthy hair growth and can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
7. They’re high in magnesium. If you have trouble sleeping, are stressed or overworked, your body could benefit from regular consumption of magnesium—and lentils can be a great source at 71 mg per cup of cooked lentils.
Possible side-effects of eating lentils: Even lentils have an Achilles heel. All that beneficial fiber can have the unpleasant side effect of, well, gas. The key to avoiding it is to rev up your lentil intake slowly — especially if you aren’t used to getting a lot of fiber normally. Lentils also contain lectins — a protein in certain plants like nightshades and legumes that has been linked to inflammation and upset stomach. It’s one of the reasons why people on the Paleo diet steer clear of beans and legumes. If you consistently feel ill after eating lentils and other lectin-filled foods, it’s probably best to avoid them or limit how much you of them you eat.
Here is a warming soup made with lentils that is perfect for a winter meal. Feel free to alter the herbs, spices and vegetables to suit your personal tastes.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced small
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
2 celery stalks, diced small
1 cup finely diced parsnips
8 ounces mushrooms (button or cremini), sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine (optional…if you do not use add one additional cup of broth)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup dried green lentils, rinsed well
7 cups chicken or vegetable broth/stock
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 cups stemmed and chopped Swiss chard or kale, in bite-size pieces
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, parsnips, mushrooms, and another pinch of salt and sauté until all of the vegetables are tender and becoming deep golden brown, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, then stir in the thyme, oregano, pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Pour in the wine to deglaze the skillet, stirring to loosen any bits stuck to the pan. Cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Stir in the tomato paste, tomatoes, and lentils. Add the broth and the bay leaf. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Taste — you may want to add a spritz of lemon juice or a pinch of salt. Stir in the Swiss chard or kale and cook until it’s tender, about 3 minutes.
Variations: Substitute fennel, which is a good digestive aid, for the celery to add more depth to the flavor. If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, just leave them out. You can substitute 1 cup of broth for the wine.
— Deborah Binder
Deborah Binder lives in Edmonds with her family. She is “dancing with N.E.D.” (no evidence of disease) after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2009. She is a foodie who loves to cook from scratch and share her experiments with her family and friends. She attended culinary school on the East Coast and freelances around town for local chefs. Her current interest in food is learning to eat for health and wellness, while at the same time enjoying the pleasures of the table. As Julia Child once said, “Everything in moderation including butter.” Deborah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.