Lentils are edible seeds from the legume family.

They’re well known for their lens shape and sold with or without their outer husks intact.

Though they’re a common food staple in countries such as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, the greatest production of lentils nowadays is in Canada (1, 2).

This article tells you everything about lentils, their nutrition and benefits, and how to cook them.

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Canan Czemmel/Stocksy United

Lentils are often categorized by their color, which can range from yellow and red to green, brown, or black (1).

Here are some of the most common lentil types:

  • Brown. These are the most widely eaten type. They have an earthy flavor, hold their shape well during cooking, and are great in stews and soups.
  • Puy. These come from the French region Le Puy. They’re similar in color but about one-third of the size of green lentils and have a peppery taste.
  • Green. These can vary in size and are usually a less expensive substitute in recipes that call for Puy lentils.
  • Yellow and red. These lentils are split and cook quickly. They’re great for making dal and have a somewhat sweet and nutty flavor.
  • Beluga. These are tiny black lentils that look almost like caviar. They make a great base for warm salads.
Summary

There are different varieties of lentils, and they are widely consumed worldwide.

Lentils are often overlooked, even though they’re an inexpensive way of getting a wide variety of nutrients.

For example, they’re packed with B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and potassium.

Lentils are made up of more than 25% protein, which makes them an excellent meat alternative. They’re also a great source of iron, a mineral that is sometimes lacking in vegetarian diets (1, 3).

Though different types of lentils may vary slightly in their nutrient content, 1 cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils generally provides the following (4):

  • Calories: 230
  • Carbs: 39.9 grams
  • Protein: 17.9 grams
  • Fat: 0.8 grams
  • Fiber: 15.6 grams
  • Thiamine: 28% of the DV
  • Niacin: 13% of the DV
  • Vitamin B6: 21% of the DV
  • Folate: 90% of the DV
  • Pantothenic acid: 25% of the DV
  • Iron: 37% of the DV
  • Magnesium: 17% of the DV
  • Phosphorus: 28% of the DV
  • Potassium: 16% of the DV
  • Zinc: 23% of the DV
  • Copper: 55% of the DV
  • Manganese: 43% of the DV

Lentils are high in fiber, which supports regular bowel movements and the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Eating lentils can increase your stool weight and improve your overall gut function (5).

Furthermore, lentils contain a broad range of beneficial plant compounds called phytochemicals, many of which protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes (1).

Summary

Lentils are an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. They’re also a great source of plant-based protein and fiber.

Lentils are rich in polyphenols, a category of health-promoting phytochemicals (1).

Some of the polyphenols in lentils, such as procyanidin and flavanols, are known to have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects (6, 7, 8).

When tested in the lab, the polyphenols in lentils were able to stop cancer cell growth, especially on cancerous skin cells (6).

Though it’s not yet understood how, the polyphenols in lentils may also play a part in improving blood sugar levels (1, 9, 10).

One animal study found that consuming lentils helped lower blood sugar levels and that the benefits were not solely due to the carb, protein, or fat content (11).

It’s also worth noting that the polyphenols in lentils don’t appear to lose their health-promoting properties after cooking (6).

This being said, these results are from laboratory and animal studies only. Human studies are needed before firm conclusions can be made about these health benefits.

Summary

Lentils are a great source of health-promoting polyphenols, which have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties with potential cancer cell-inhibiting effects.

Eating lentils is associated with an overall lower risk of heart disease, as it has positive effects on several risk factors (1, 12).

One 8-week study in 39 people with overweight or obesity and type 2 diabetes found that eating 1/3 cup (60 grams) of lentils each day increased levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and significantly reduced levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides (13).

Lentils may also help lower your blood pressure. A study in rats found that those eating lentils had greater reductions in blood pressure than those eating peas, chickpeas, or beans (14).

Furthermore, proteins in lentils may be able to block angiotensin I-converting enzyme, which normally triggers blood vessel constriction and thereby increases blood pressure (15, 16).

High levels of homocysteine are another risk factor for heart disease. These can increase when your dietary folate intake is insufficient. Because lentils are a great source of folate, they may help prevent excess homocysteine from accumulating in your body (12).

Having overweight or obesity increases the risk of heart disease. Eating lentils may help decrease your overall food intake, which could contribute to weight loss or maintenance. Lentils are very filling and appear to keep blood sugar levels steady (9, 17, 18).

Summary

Lentils may protect your heart by supporting weight loss, preventing homocysteine accumulation in your body, and improving cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Lentils contain antinutrients, which can affect the absorption of other nutrients.

Trypsin inhibitors

Lentils contain trypsin inhibitors, which block the production of the enzyme that normally helps break down protein from your diet.

However, lentils generally contain low amounts of these, and it’s unlikely that trypsin from lentils will have a major effect on your protein digestion (19).

Lectins

Lectins can resist digestion and bind to other nutrients, preventing their absorption.

Furthermore, lectins can bind to carbs on the gut wall. If they’re consumed in excess, they may disturb the gut barrier and increase intestinal permeability, a condition also known as leaky gut (20).

It’s speculated that too many lectins in the diet may increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition, but the evidence to support this is limited (20).

Lectins may also possess anticancer and antibacterial properties (21, 22).

If you’re trying to minimize the number of lectins in your diet, try soaking lentils overnight and discarding the water before cooking them.

Tannins

Lentils contain tannins, which can bind to proteins and prevent the absorption of certain nutrients (23).

In particular, there are concerns that tannins may impair iron absorption. However, research indicates that iron levels are generally not impacted by dietary tannin intake (24).

On the other hand, tannins are high in health-promoting antioxidants (24).

Phytic acid

Phytic acids, or phytates, can bind minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium, reducing their absorption (25).

However, phytic acid is also reported to have strong antioxidant and anticancer properties (26).

Though lentils, like all legumes, contain some antinutrients, dehulling and cooking the seeds greatly reduces the presence of antinutrients (23).

Summary

Lentils contain antinutrients such as trypsin inhibitors and phytic acid, which reduce the absorption of some nutrients. Soaking and cooking lentils will minimize these, but regardless, you will still absorb the majority of your nutrients.

Lentils are easy to cook. Unlike many other legumes, they don’t require any prior soaking and can be cooked in less than 30 minutes. Or you can use canned lentils.

It’s best to give them a rinse before cooking, to remove impurities.

You can then place them in a pot, cover them with water and a pinch of salt, bring them to a boil, and let them simmer uncovered for 20–30 minutes (27).

Your lentils should be slightly crunchy or soft, depending on your preference. Once they are boiled, drain and rinse them in cold water to prevent further cooking.

Some lentils, such as split orange lentils, cook within 5 minutes and are great when you want to prepare a last-minute meal or bulk up an already-cooked meal (27).

You can also cook lentils in big batches and use them for lunch or dinner throughout the week, as they will last for up to 5 days in your fridge (27).

The antinutrient content in lentils is significantly reduced by cooking. You can also soak your lentils overnight to lower the levels even further (23).

Summary

Lentils are easy to cook, with split lentils taking only 5–10 minutes and other varieties taking 20–30 minutes to prepare. Plus, unlike other legumes, lentils don’t need to be soaked before cooking.

Whether brown, green, yellow, red, or black, lentils are low in calories, rich in iron and folate, and an excellent source of protein.

They pack health-promoting polyphenols and may reduce several heart disease risk factors.

They’re easily cooked in 5–30 minutes, which — like soaking — reduces their antinutrient content.

Just one thing

Try this today: Making nutrient-dense midweek meals can sometimes be challenging. To make it a little easier, try stocking your pantry with these staples.