I Love Lentils and You Should Too
To be honest, that’s a slightly misleading title, because I don’t actually “love” the taste of lentils. On their own, they don’t actually taste like much, and what they taste like isn’t all that great. How’s that for a great intro for something I’m trying to make you eat more of! Nevertheless, I keep making this pulse a regular part of my meals for three reasons:
1. Lentils are Incredibly Nutritious
Lentils are one of the rare types of foods that combine two important nutrients in one package: they are rich in both protein and fibre. Most foods either contain one or the other: meat, fish, eggs and tofu have lots of protein but no fiber, and green vegetables and fruits that are high in fiber have little protein. Lentils are excellent for vegan or vegetarians who are concerned about their protein intake, as they have more protein per serving than quinoa and other grains. They are also great for people consuming the average Western diet, which tends to be very low in fiber. A low-fiber diet can cause or exacerbate many health issues. You can read about the dangers of not eating fiber here.
Lentils also pack a nutritional punch when it comes to micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Just look at this amazing list (values are per cup of cooked lentils, roughly one serving):
- 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
Compare that to processed food like a box of cereal! An incredible property of lentils is that cooking them makes the nutrients they contain more accessible, unlike some vegetbles that leach their nutrients into the cooking water. Lentils are also an excellent source of group of nutrients called polyphenols that are non-essential, but are really good for you. Several of them are strong anti-oxidants, and studies have shown them to have anti-heart-disease, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties. These three diseases are amongst the largest killers of people in the world.
You may have heard that some people are concerned about a group of plant-chemicals called lectins, which occur in some types of foods, including lentils. While lectins are definitely not good for you, cooking food deactivates the vast majority of lectins. What’s left isn’t usually a cause for concern unless you have specific gut-related issues. To make sure you get rid of the lectins, cook the lentils in plenty of water, then get rid of the excess water.
2. Lentils are Easy to Prepare…
…and make tasty. Remember when I said they are kind of bland by themselves? Well, the good news is they are extremely easy to prepare and flavour any way you want. Lentils have been a part of many different cultures for thousands of years, but it is especially prominent in the cuisine of India, where it is know as dal. Since India is a mostly vegetarian country, they have found many ways to make lentils delicious. They also take advantage of the different types of lentils available for different dishes. Check out the easy dal recipe I have on the site, and a couple of other lentil recipes from France and Italy on my recipes page.
The cool thing about lentils is all you have to do is boil them, add some tasty stuff, and you’re done. This makes them perfect for salads and cold dishes. Just make sure to use the right lentils for the right purpose. Red and yellow lentils turn mushy when cooked and are best for Indian dishes, while green and brown lentils keep their shape and structure, and are better for salads and as a side-dish. Puy lentils from France are famous for the peppery and earthy flavour, and command quite the price premium. You can read more about them here.
3. Eating Lentils is Good for the Planet
If you care about the environment (and who doesn’t), adding plant-based foods that are high in protein to your diet is a great way to reduce your carbon foot-print and help the environment. While I am not a vegan or vegetarian, I do think reducing our meat consumption is a good way to help reduce our environmental footprint. This is especially true for beef, the most environmentally damaging livestock.
Comparing gram for gram of protein supplied, lentils require 5 gallons of water per gram. The closest meat product is chicken, which needs almost double the water of lentils. Shockingly, beef needs an astonishing 6 times the water of lentils for each gram of dietary protein provided! Maybe it is time to give lentil burgers a try? Give this recipe from Bon Appétit a try; my family and I found them delicious.
Another incredible benefit of lentils on the planet is the lentil plant’s ability to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, greatly reducing the need for fertilizers. When planted after a lentil crop, cereals such as wheat or oats yield significantly more per acre, up to 0.6 tons. This is a massively effective way to increase our food production while actually decreasing pollution resulting from agriculture. All from the mighty lentil! Archeological evidence shows that humans have eaten lentils for at least 13,000 years, making it one of the oldest domesticated plants. The fact that it increases yields of other crops may be one of the main reasons why.
So I Convinced You to Eat More Lentils. Now What?
Go buy some! Then cook some! Then eat some! Here’s a list of useful sites and recipes that I found useful in my attempts to add more pulses to my diet. Just remember: orange and yellow lentils go mushy, others don’t.
- How to Cook Perfect Lentils by Downshiftology.com
- Healthyish Lentil Burgers by Bon Appétit (they are actually quite healthy, not just healthyish!)
- Another delicious lentil burger recipe
- An extremely simple but delicious way to make those fancy French Puy lentils
- An excellent guide to making dal, the staple lentil dish of the Indian subcontinent
- My favourite lentil recipe: dal makhani! A king amongst lentil dishes. Uses tons of cream so not the healthiest, but incredibly delicious if you like Indian food. This is the best version that I have found
- An excellent list of 7 lentil recipes from Organic Authority
- A Lebanese-style lentil soup that my 9-year old loves. Mild and delicous.
Useful Information on Lentils and other Pulses
- A paper on the health benefits of polyphenols in lentils
- An excellent guide to the different varieties of lentils
- A very long, detailed paper on the benefits of lentil production and environmental sustainability
- Some of the health benefits of lentils
- Information on the many different types of lentils