The Number One Food You Should Be Eating But Probably Aren’t: Lentils
Lentils not in your diet? They should be, especially if you care about your health and climate change. Here’s why. Lentils might be one of the most underrated foods. Although they’re tiny in nature, they carry huge benefits for your health as well as the planet.
Yet if you’re like most Americans, you’re probably not eating many, if any lentils on the regular. Less than five percent of individuals ate legumes (which lentils are) daily, in a study of consumers, while one third didn’t even eat a single bean during the previous month, according to the study published in the journal Nutrients that evaluated how many beans, lentils and peas families in Oregon were eating. Sound familiar? Time to make a change and embrace these little nutritional powerhouses.
Why lentils should be a staple in your diet
Lentils belong to the legume family, as do soybeans, peanuts, fresh peas, and fresh beans. But unlike these other forms of legumes, lentils have an even more special designation in that they’re considered pulses. Dry beans, dry peas, and chickpeas are also classified as pulses, which refers to the dry edible seed that grows within the pod. Among the legume family, pulses are rockstars, namely because they have unique health benefits.
For starters, pulses are high in protein and fiber and low in fat, says Becky Garrison, R.D.N., director of domestic marketing for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.
In just a half cup of cooked lentils, you’ll get 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber, which is a quarter of your daily recommended amount of 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day, according to the USDA. As a result, lentils can help you feel fuller longer, which means you’ll have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight. Lentils also contain the most amount of folate in any plant protein, and just a half-cup of cooked lentils can give you 15 percent of your daily iron needs, according to Lentils.org.
Lentils are good for gut health, lowering blood sugar and fighting heart disease
In terms of health, because lentils are a source of prebiotic fiber, which is the type your gut bacteria prefers, they can help improve gut health, Garrison says. They can also help manage blood sugar levels and have been shown to make your heart healthier, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
Lentils are also great for the planet, compared to other protein sources
But the benefits don’t just stop with people, as they’re also healthy for the planet. “Lentils and all pulses are considered environmentally friendly crops,” Garrison says. They’re actually one of the most climate-friendly foods, according to the Environmental Working Group. As a comparison, they produce almost 40 times less greenhouse gas emissions than lamb, the food with the most impact on the planet.
That’s because pulses can take nitrogen from the air and convert it into nutrients they need. They can also be grown and harvested in a wide array of climates and terrains and require less water and nitrogen fertilizer than other traditional crops. ‘This results in a healthier soil that can be reaped multiple times over without overworking the land,” Garrison says. Lentils put more carbon into the soil than is emitted, which makes them a carbon negative crop and one of the most sustainable protein sources on the planet.
Adding lentils to your diet is easier than you think
Fortunately, lentils are easy to incorporate into any meal. Just toss them into salads or pastas, mix them into mashed potatoes or soups, or add them to burger patties, sloppy joes or spaghetti sauce for an added plant protein boost and a slightly chewy texture, Garrison says.
Of course, deciding what type of lentil to use might be your toughest task, as there are numerous varieties. In general, they fall into four types: Green, brown, red/yellow and specialty. “Let cook time and texture determine which you’ll use,” Garrison says.
Brown and green lentils, what some consider regular lentils, hold their shape well, which makes them perfect for brothy soups, casseroles or alongside plant meats in tacos or pasta dishes, Garrison says. Meanwhile, red and yellow lentils tend to cook quickly and break down faster, lending themselves to pureeing. Add them to thick soups, curries or stews. And specialty lentils like French Greens or Pardinas earn extra credit for holding their shape well, one reason they’re best showcased in salads or featured on their own as a side dish.
Just don’t think your only option is buying plain old lentils. Numerous products now incorporate lentils, including pasta noodles, crackers or chips, and frozen convenience meals.
Lentils, anybody? Whether you eat them for your health or the planet’s health or both, making lentils a staple in your plant-based diet is one of the best moves you can make.
How to Cook Lentils from Lentils.com Lentils do not require soaking in advance.
- Rinse lentils in freshwater before boiling to remove dust.
- Cook on a stovetop, using 3 cups of water to 1 cup of dry lentils. Choose a large enough saucepan since lentils will double or triple in size.
- Bring to a boil, cover tightly, reduce heat and simmer until they are tender.For whole lentils, cook time is 15-20 minutes. For split red lentils, cook time is only 5-7 minutes. Season with salt after cooking – if salt is added before, lentils will become tough.
Make These Eggplant and Lentil Vegan Meatballs on Repeat
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Servings 25 meatballs
Eggplant and Lentil Meatballs
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 red onion
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 eggplant (about 425g)
- 1/2-1 cup gluten-free oats
- 1 cup cooked green lentils
- 1/3 cup black olives, pits removed and chopped
- 1/2 lemon zest and juice
- 2 tsp tamari
- 2 tbsp tahini
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 3 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes
- pinch sea salt and pepper
Tomato Sauce and Spaghetti
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tsp coconut oil
- 1 jar organic tomato puree (700g)
- pinch sea salt
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- splash red wine (optional, but I love it)
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper flakes
- more sea salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 packet whole wheat spaghetti noodles (450g)
For the Meatballs
- Finely chop garlic and onion and add to skillet with coconut oil. Bring to medium-high heat and cook to soften (10 mins). Chop eggplant into bite-sized pieces and add to the skillet. Cook until softened (15 mins).
- Pour oats in a food processor until flour substance, then transfer to a bowl. Transfer the eggplant mixture to a food processor with lentils, olives, lemon juice, tamari and tahini. Pulse to combine.
- Spice meatball mixture with cumin, nutritional yeast, cayenne, and pinch salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup of ground oats. Pulse to combine. (The oats will help to thicken the meatballs. Texture should be moist, but you want it dry enough to handle with your hands. I needed only 1/2 cup ground oats, but add more if needed).
- Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Shape meatball mixture into little balls and place on a tray. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the meatballs are golden.
- Make tomato sauce: add chopped garlic and coconut oil to the saucepan. Bring to medium-high heat and cook until softened (3 mins). Pour in tomato puree and cook on a gentle simmer. Add a generous pinch of salt, lemon juice, and splash red wine. Sprinkle with cayenne, more salt and pepper to taste.
- Add meatballs to sauce and gently mix to combine. Keep meatballs on low heat while you cook spaghetti.
- Cook spaghetti in a large pot of water for 7-8 minutes, or until al-dente. Strain and divide into bowls. Top with saucy meatballs.