What Exactly are Lentils?
Lentils are dried seeds of the lentil plant. The name “lentil” comes from the Latin word for “lens,” which is appropriate as many lentils are lens-shaped. Most come in dried form, though they can also be found in ready-to-eat packages.
Unlike beans which are frequently used as side dishes or main dishes, lentils are most commonly used in soups, stews, dips, and salads.
What Is the Difference Between Beans and Lentils?
Both beans and lentils are part of the legume family (Fabaceae). These plants have pods with consumable fruits or seeds in them. There are tens of thousands of species of legumes, including beans, soybeans, peas, chickpeas, pulses, peanuts—and yes, lentils.
Though named for their lens shape, lentils’ appearance can vary, with some being large and flat and others small and rounded. There are many different varieties, but the most popular are green, brown, and red lentils.
Beans are also members of the legume family, and they are also seeds, but they are more kidney-shaped and larger than lentils.
There are also differences when it comes to nutrition. Both beans and lentils are good sources of fiber, but lentils typically contain more. Beans contain more carbohydrates than lentils do, while lentils have more protein. Both are healthy options to add to your diet.
Finally, these two foods differ when you cook them. Beans have to be soaked overnight before cooking and take considerable time to cook. Lentils don’t have to be pre-soaked and they cook faster, more like pasta or rice.
5 Health Benefits of Lentils
1. Lentils are Packed with Nutrients
One of the best reasons to eat lentils is that they’re packed with nutrients. One cup provides about 18 grams of protein, a whopping 15 grams of fiber (over half your daily requirement), over 90 percent of your daily requirement of folate, and over half your daily requirement of copper and phosphorus.
Lentils are good sources of manganese, iron, vitamin B1, pantothenic acid, zinc, and vitamin B6.
2. Lentils are Heart Healthy
The more lentils you eat, the lower your risk for heart disease may be.
That’s because lentils have a couple of potential heart-disease-lowering actions:
- Improves Cholesterol: In one study of overweight people with type 2 diabetes, those eating one-third cup of lentils per day increased levels of HDL cholesterol, while lowering levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.
- Lowers Blood Pressure: Though we need more studies on this one, one small study in animals showed that those eating lentils had greater reductions in blood pressure than those eating other legumes.
3. Lentils May Help Balance Blood Sugar Levels
When you eat lentils, the body has to work hard to break them down and digest them. That means they are less likely to spike your blood sugar levels than other foods. Indeed, lentils have a low glycemic index, meaning that they are unlikely to increase blood sugar levels and are healthy for diabetics.
Several studies have suggested that lentils may help balance your blood sugar. In one published in 2012, researchers found that consumption of pulses like lentils in a high-glycemic meal not only helped participants feel fuller faster but lowered blood glucose levels following the meal.
4. Lentils Promote Healthy Digestion
Lentils are high in fiber and are particularly rich in prebiotic fiber, which helps fuel the beneficial gut bacteria that are important to overall health. Prebiotics support probiotics, which nourish the friendly bacteria in the gut. Getting more of them, then, can help keep your digestion moving as it should, while also potentially boosting immunity.
In a 2018 animal study, researchers found that a lentil-based diet helped suppress the “bad” bacteria in the gut, while also decreasing body weight and percent body fat in subjects. And in a later study, scientists found that overall, a 20 percent lentil diet had the greatest impact on colon health outcomes.
5. Lentils are a Great Source of Protein
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or eat a meatless diet, lentils are a good choice. They are high in protein—about 18 grams per cup—which means they will help you feel full and better resist snacking while providing a meat-free source of protein.
In a 2016 review, researchers found that eating one serving of lentils per day could help encourage modest weight loss. Indeed, when comparing diets that included legumes like lentils to meal plans without them, researchers found that adding one serving of legumes a day could make a significant difference in weight loss.
Lentils also help curb hunger. The journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism (APNM) reported in 2011 that lentils have an appetite-lowering effect. They also helped lower blood sugar levels, which is important when you’re trying to curb cravings.
Lentils Can Help Protect You from Disease
There’s one more benefit to eating lentils—they’re high in protective antioxidants that come from “polyphenols” in the plants. In fact, they have the second-highest antioxidant content (behind black beans) among all legumes tested by science-based nonprofit organization NutritionFacts.org. That means they may help protect you from several common diseases.
According to a 2017 study, the polyphenols and other compounds in lentils “play an important role in the prevention of those degenerative diseases in humans” such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
As you can see, lentils offer many potential health benefits, and they’re a great addition to a healthy, balanced diet or a plant-based diet. A common ingredient found in a variety of soups, salads, stews, and more, so there are many ways to incorporate these healthy legumes into your daily diet.