Dreaming of a homey autumn soup? Look no further than the lentil for your base. This tiny, disc-shaped legume boasts a wealth of nutrients that will help tame your blood sugar and promote good digestion. The powerful nutrients in lentils may even prevent the development of cancer and kickstart your immune system.
To assess the full range of health benefits in lentils, we talked to Alyssa Pike, a registered dietician and Senior Manager of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
“Lentils are a diverse, plant-based source of many important nutrients like folate, manganese, thiamine and more,” Pike tells First for Women. “They are primarily made up of carbohydrates and protein. The most important type of carbohydrate they contain is fiber – mostly soluble fiber, which can help lower cholesterol.”
Indeed, a study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that eating one serving per day of lentils, beans, peas, or chickpeas reduced bad cholesterol levels. The reason? These foods have a high fiber content. Fiber helps reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body. Plus, lentils have a low glycemic index (GI) and break down slowly during digestion. This makes them a particularly healthy food for those who have diabetes.
Lentils may lower your risk of cancer.
According to University of Michigan Health, lentils and other legumes contain nutrients that may reduce several types of cancer. Those nutrients include flavonoids and other phytochemicals, or plant compounds that reduce inflammation. They also include two nutrients that have potential anti-cancer activity: lignans and saponins.
Lignans are a wide class of phytonutrients found in plants. When you consume them, your body converts them into phytoestrogens, or compounds that mimic estrogen. As explained by the American Institute for Cancer Research, lignans may decrease growth and increase the self-destruction of cancer cells.
Saponins are a separate class of plant compounds found in legumes. As shown in multiple clinical studies, these compounds positively affect the immune system and help the body protect itself from cancers.
Also, lentils contain resistant starch, which doesn’t get digested in the small intestine. Rather, it ferments in the large intestine and acts as a prebiotic by feeding the good bacteria in your gut. Research shows that resistant starch protects cells in the colon by killing pre-cancerous cells and reducing inflammation. In other words, it may ward off colon cancer.
Lentils may boost your immune system.
In addition to housing powerful phytonutrients, lentils contain iron, zinc, and vitamin B6. All three of these nutrients are linked to better immunity.
Iron, for example, helps activate and boost the number of immune cells in the body. Thus, an iron deficiency makes a person more likely to get sick from an infection. Zinc is a key player in the immune system, as it fights off invading bacteria and viruses. Vitamin B6 helps create essential biochemical reactions in the immune system. In fact, a study from the Journal of Immunology Research shows that a vitamin B6 deficiency slows down the growth of white blood cells, including T cells.
Don’t worry about lectins in lentils.
If you’re hesitant to add lentils to your diet because of lectins, don’t be. Though many nutritionists call lectins “anti-nutrients,” Pike notes that it’s hard to eat enough lectins for them to become a problem.
“Lectins are a type of plant protein that can bind to sugar,” Pike says. “They occur naturally in many healthy foods like certain kinds of vegetables, legumes and whole grains. When eaten in high amounts, lectins may inhibit your ability to absorb certain nutrients; however, most people do not eat enough raw lectin-containing foods for this to pose a problem. Lectins can be inactivated through cooking which is one reason why beans such as red kidney beans need to be boiled before eaten.”
Harvard Health agrees that a high consumption of lectins is rare. Still, you may be more likely to suffer from negative side effects of lectins if you have a digestive issue like irritable bowel syndrome. If you experience serious discomfort when you eat lentils, you should consider talking to your doctor. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to eat them in smaller portions.
Create a delicious, well-rounded meal with lentils.
Looking for an easy way to add more lentils to your meals? For a simple and tasty solution, whip up a lentil soup. A hearty soup rich in this legume not only improves your gut health, but also keeps you full for longer.
Pike recommends pairing lentils with vegetables and grains to create a well-rounded, nutritious meal. “Lentils provide carbohydrates and protein, and I would add additional carbohydrates in the form of vegetables and grains as well as some fat from plant-based and dairy sources to round out the meal,” she says. For instance, Pike suggests a bowl of lentils, rice, cooked veggies, and sliced avocado topped with cheese and olives.
So, how much of this legume should you eat in a serving? “Figuring out how many beans to eat on a regular basis will depend on your own caloric needs, but about one to three cups of beans, peas, and lentils – including kidney beans – per week is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” It’s time to get cooking!