Transitioning into a plant-based, meat-free diet is one of the most liberating and life-changing transitions you can make. With that said, it’s not always easy to give up meat, especially when some of your favorite meals rely on it. This is where lentils truly shine in the plant-based food world! Lentils offer a wide variety of textures, flavors, and uses while also replacing the taste of meat in many recipes.
The Basic Lentil
A lentil is part of the legume family, a bushy pod-sprouting annual plant, generally grown for its pulse. The lentil, in particular, is known for the soft and malleable lens-shaped seed and its accompanying earthy flavor. Both of these traits make the lentil an incredibly diverse ingredient in plant-based diets. Lentils are favored in South Asian cuisine but the main production takes place in Canada, India, and Australia.
Nutritional Value of a Cup of Lentils
One cup of cooked and boiled lentils packs an array of essential nutrients including over 17 grams of protein, over 15 grams of dietary fiber, and over 300 milligrams of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. They offer a great source of vitamin including A, C, E, K, and B6, as well as Niacin (2.1 mg), Folate (358 mcg), and Choline (64.7 mg). These legumes also provide essential minerals including calcium (37.6), phosphorous (356 mg), iron (6.6 mg), magnesium (71.3 mg), potassium (731 mg), sodium (4.0 mg), zinc (2.5 mg), and selenium (5.5 mcg).
While the nutrition facts are helpful, what health effects do these nutrients have on your body? From providing a healthy dose of cholesterol-lowering dietary fiber to helping manage blood-sugar disorders, lentils offer large amounts of essential minerals and vitamins with almost no fat.
Source of Lean Protein
As building blocks of the body, protein is an incredibly important part of a well-balanced, healthy diet. All proteins aren’t created equally, though. Lean protein provides the necessary nutrients without the high levels of saturated fat that resides in many processed meat and full dairy products. Healthy, low-fat, lean protein has been linked to various health benefits including heart health due to lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as healthy weight management and weight loss.
When compared to other traditional sources of meat-based lean protein, such as fish and poultry, lentils have been shown to provide an equal serving of protein with less fat.
Lentils offer a great source of heart-healthy essential nutrients such as lean protein, dietary fiber, folate, and magnesium. While both lean protein and fiber contribute to heart health by lowering cholesterol, improving blood pressure, and aiding with healthy weight management, two important nutrients present in legumes such as lentils are the high amounts of magnesium and folate.
Folate, a water-soluble B vitamin, helps to convert hymocysteine, an amino acid known to cause damage to artery walls, into cysteine or methionine, both of which pose no threat to the human body. While folate protects the body from damaging substances, magnesium is an essential calcium channel blocker. Basically, magnesium keeps veins and arteries clear of blockage, which increases blood flow throughout the body and decreases the risk of heart relate health problems.
One of the struggles of a plant-based diet is obtaining a healthy and normal digestive system. While plants are incredibly nutritious and transformative, they may also have unpleasant side effects including gas and constipation. But this is easily remedied by incorporating more lentils into your diet!
Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one cup of lentils offers 63 percent of the recommended daily dose of dietary for adults. Dietary fiber is a key ingredient for healthy digestion. Instead of being digested by your body, it passes through the stomach, small intestine, and colon as a solid. Fiber product — indigestible parts of plant-based foods — helps to add bulk, as well as soften stool, which encourages regular and easier bowel movements.
Lentils increase electrolyte activity in the body, one of the lesser known health benefits. This is due to the high levels of potassium. One cup offers a whopping 731 milligrams of potassium. Potassium is an essential mineral that aids with muscle contraction, “helps regulate fluid and mineral balance in and out of body cells,” and counteract the negative effects of sodium, which helps to lower blood pressure.
Electrolytes, a mixture of chemicals and water that conduct electricity, are an essential part of automatic processes in the body that rely on electric current. While it’s widely recognized that sodium is a source of electrolytes, recent studies have shown that potassium may be a better source for this essential chemical.
There are a wide variety of lentils available at almost every grocery or health food store. Generally, lentils are broken down into brown, green, red, yellow, and other or specialty. Each type has a different texture before and after cooking, as well a diverse range of tastes and uses.
Brown and Green Lentils
Brown and green lentils, also referred to simply as lentils, are the most widely sold and popular of the lentil family. Brown and green lentils aren’t hulled or split. When means that they hold up well in cooking and are great for meatless replacement recipes.
Brown lentils are popular due to their attractive price points and their availability to be bought in bulk. On the grocery store shelf, brown lentils are referred to simply as lentils, regular lentils, or brewer lentils. Green lentils are broken down into Laird lentils, the largest form, Richlea lentil, medium-sized, and Eston lentil, the smallest of the green lentil family.
Red lentils actually refer to a wide range of colors including red, orange, yellow, and gold. While the brown and green have an earthy and spicy flavoring, red lentils offer a nutty and sweet taste. These varieties are generally hulled and split, which leads to a more delicate form. Red and yellow lentils are great for thickening soups or pureeing into base pastes.
Outside of the traditional brown, green, red, and yellow lentils reside a few specialty varieties. The Black Beluga Lentil is oftentimes visually compared to caviar due to its small size and dark coloring. Due to their strong, earthy flavor, these lentils are most often used in salads. Puy lentils, part of the green lentil variety, are some of the most nutritious lentils as they soak up the essential minerals and vitamins from the volcanic soils of Le Puy, Central France. French Green lentils, which are the most popular for meat substitute recipes such as burger patties and meatballs. This is due to their hearty and peppery flavoring, which is distinct from the brown and red counterparts, which both have an earthier flavor.
How to Use Them
Understanding the biology, taste, and variety of the lentil is only the first step to incorporating these tasty legumes into your diet. The next step is exploring and testing out great lentil-based recipes! Here are a few different ways to creatively and easily use lentils in your everyday diet.
As a meat substitute …
The tough exterior, mild flavoring, and adaptability of the brown and green lentil varieties make them the best option for meatless recipes. Generally, one cup of lentil will substitute for a pound of meat. While they are most popularly used to replace ground beef, don’t be afraid to use lentils as a substitute for any meat such as in this Sweet Potato and Sage Lentil Shepherd’s Pie or even this Lentil Chili Stew-Stuffed Burrito.
Start off your legume experience with a few of the tasty meatless recipes: Tempeh and Lentil ‘Meat’ Loaf, Maple-Glazed Mushroom and Lentil Loaf, Easy Potato Lentil ‘Meatballs’, Green Lentil Sloppy Joe’s, or this Foolproof Mega Lentil Burger.
As a carb substitute …
For those suffering from carbohydrate intolerance or simply wish to reduce the consumption of carbohydrates, lentils offer a way to enjoy your favorite carb-heavy meals without the high amount of carbs themselves. While brown and green lentils work, its best to use red lentils. While also being easily broken down and turned into pastes, they offer a similar nutty and wheat flavor as flour. Here are a few great started recipes using this ingredient as a carbohydrate substitute: Rustic Roasted Veggie Pizza With Lentil Crust, Red Lentil Pasta With Basil-Pistachio Pesto, Deconstructed Lentil Pot Pie With Biscuits, or this Tex-Mex Tortilla Lasagna.
As a soup or a chili …
Any type of lentil plays well in soups and chili. Traditionally, it was used as a thickener in many Southern Asian and Indian inspired recipes such as this Black Lentil Sesame Coconut Soup or this Hearty High-Protein Lentil, Kidney Bean, and Chickpea Chili. Using lentils is soup or chili also reduces cook time, as the lentils can simmer and cook with the rest of the ingredients, such as in this Tomato, Carrot, Brussels Sprouts Soup. Lentils also have great anti-inflammatory properties, such as this Anti-Inflammatory Red Lentil Soup With Caramelized Onions, which are leached out during the stewing process.
For more tasty lentil recipes we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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