Like beans, peas and other legumes, lentils are an excellent, low-fat source of protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber and an array of essential vitamins and minerals. Although they’re small, lentils grow just one or two to a pod. Only fully mature, dried lentils are used for cooking. Brown, green and red lentils are by far the most commonly available varieties in the United States.
Lentils are a high-fiber food. One cup of plain, cooked lentils provides 230 calories and just under 40 grams of complex carbohydrates, of which 15.6 grams are fiber, an amount equivalent to 62 percent of the daily value for fiber. While lentils contain significant amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber, they’re especially rich in the soluble type. Soluble fiber dissolves into a substance that binds to cholesterol and other fatty acids and promotes their excretion through waste. Soluble fiber also slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream to promote normal blood glucose levels. A 2009 analysis of several related studies published in the journal "Diabetologia," found that lentils and other legumes improve blood glucose management in diabetics.
Lentils are rich in several B vitamins, particularly folate, thiamine and vitamin B-6. These nutrients are required to produce energy. Specifically, B vitamins help your body use proteins and fat and convert carbohydrates into glucose. One cup of cooked lentils supplies about 90 percent, 22 percent and 18 percent of the daily values for folate, thiamine and vitamin B-6, respectively, as well as 10 percent and 9 percent of the daily values for niacin and riboflavin, respectively. Folate is essential to brain health, the formation of red blood cells and the prevention of neural-tube birth defects. B vitamins also play a role in healthy liver, immune system and nervous system function.
Lentils provide iron, phosphorus and potassium, and also contain appreciable amounts of several other minerals. Per cup, cooked lentils provide roughly 37 percent each of the daily values for iron and phosphorus. As with other plant-based foods, the iron in lentils is the nonheme type. Consuming lentils with meat, poultry, fish, seafood or foods that are high in vitamin C increases the absorption rate of nonheme iron. In conjunction with calcium, phosphorus helps build and maintain healthy bone. It also regulates the release of energy and helps transport nutrients into and out of cells. Lentils also supply 21 percent, 18 percent and 17 percent of the daily values for potassium, magnesium and zinc, respectively, per cup.
Also an excellent source of vegetarian protein, lentils provide just under 18 grams of quality protein per cup. Because the protein and mineral profile of lentils and other mature legumes is comparable to that of meat, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes them in both the vegetable and protein food groups -- a serving of lentils can count as either as a serving of vegetables or a serving of protein.
Unlike most dried beans, lentils don’t need to be soaked overnight prior to cooking. Add cooked lentils to tomato sauce and toss it with whole-grain pasta for a high-fiber, nutrient-dense meal. Puree red lentils cooked in a spicy chicken broth to serve as a healthy, flavorful accompaniment to toasted pita and julienned vegetables.
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Lentils, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Calculate the Percent Daily Value for the Appropriate Nutrients
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Beans and Peas Are Unique Foods
- Wellness Foods A to Z; Sheldon Margen, M.D., et al.
- Encyclopedia of Healing Foods; Michael Murray, N.D., et al.
- Superfoods; Tonia Reinhard
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.