Take the chill out of winter with the nutrient-packed goodness of lentils. These tiny members of the legume family may be small in size but are big on nutrition. Lentils are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. They also contain antioxidants and phytonutrients—naturally occurring plant compounds that help prevent damage to cells throughout the body. Lentils are so versatile that they can be made into a variety of different dishes, from appetizers and side dishes to main meals and desserts.
Lentils have been cultivated for centuries. They are thought to be one of the first agricultural crops in the world. They are still a staple food for many cultures around the world. Lentils, along with dried peas and garbanzo beans, are known as legumes or pulses. They grow in pods that contain either 1 or 2 lentil seeds. These seeds can be round, oval, or heart-shaped and are sold whole or split into halves. Lentils come in a variety of colors, with brown and green being the most popular, but they can also be found in black, yellow, red, and orange.
The nutritional benefits of lentils lend themselves to the prevention and management of a number of medical conditions. Lentils can help improve heart health by lowering cholesterol levels as well as improve glycemic control in diabetes. There are also studies to support their role in reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. Another important function of lentils is in weight management because of their low fat, complex carbohydrate, and high protein content. The nutritional profile of lentils makes them an essential part of a healthy diet and an asset in helping to improve the quality of one’s diet.
A common theme in the prevention of cancer and in the dietary recommendations proposed in survivorship is to move toward a plant-based diet. Lentils are an important part of this diet plan as they offer the vitamins and minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals most often found in vegetables and also the rich protein content commonly found in animal proteins. According to the CDC, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and a majority of colorectal cancer cases arise in adenomatous polyps. Results from a recent research study show that consumption of legumes at least 3 times per week reduced the risk of developing colorectal polyps by 33%.1 The higher consumption of cooked green vegetables, dried fruit, legumes, and brown rice was associated with a decreased risk of colorectal polyps.1 Modifying the diet can have a profound impact on reducing the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Another study looked at the impact of legumes on the development of several other types of cancer and showed that a higher intake of legumes decreased the risk of upper digestive tract cancers, as well as stomach, colorectal, and kidney cancers.2 More research is needed to determine the exact impact that lentils and other legumes have on reducing the risk of cancer. Specific populations may also benefit from increased lentil and legume intake, as evidenced by the results of a study examining the effect of legume intake on the development of colorectal adenomas in African-Americans. The study showed that consumption of legumes such as lentils, dried beans, and split peas was associated with a reduced risk of formation and growth of adenomas.3 The incidence of colorectal cancer is higher in African-American men and women, according to the 2007 CDC cancer incidence rates report.4 Based on these statistics, the results of this study and others that show a positive impact of increased intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes on cancer prevention is powerful information that can be used to help specific populations reduce their risk of cancer by making targeted dietary changes.
Obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are also among the most common health conditions that plague Americans. Lentils and other legumes are the perfect food to help manage these conditions. The high fiber content makes the lentil ideal for improving cholesterol levels, regulating blood sugars, and ensuring satiety and calorie control. Lentils contain both insoluble fiber, the type that helps maintain bowel regularity, and soluble fiber, the type that helps remove impurities from the body. The lower fat content of lentils makes them a smart substitution for a higher-fat animal protein. The high-quality protein and complex carbohydrates found in lentils are responsible for their satiating property. Encouraging patients to make 1 meal per week meatless is a great way to help them reach their fruit and vegetable goals. The USDA makes it easy for people to track the quality of their diet by using the ChooseMyPlate.gov Web site.5 This Web site allows people to keep track of what they are consuming and if they are consuming the recommended amounts of each food group. The American Institute for Cancer Research also encourages a plant-based diet in which two-thirds or more of the plate consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes and one-third or less of animal protein.6 These tools allow patients to make gradual, sustaining lifestyle and dietary changes that can greatly enhance their overall health. Arming patients with diet education and empowering them with the tools they can use to make these changes in order to produce a positive impact on their health is indispensable to their cancer journey.
Whether they are green, brown, red, orange, or black, lentils provide a substantial nutrient profile in such a pint-sized package. A 1-cup serving of lentils provides approximately 18 g of protein, 16 g of fiber, less than 2 g of fat, and a minimal amount of sodium. Lentils are also an excellent source of potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and folate, and a good source of calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin C, and B vitamins, with the exception of vitamin B12. Unlike dried beans, lentils do not need to be presoaked prior to use. Before cooking, rinse them under cold water in a strainer to remove any debris that may have gotten mixed in with the lentils during packaging. When cooking lentils, it is best if you add the lentils once the water is boiling, as this will make them easier to digest. They can be bought in bulk, prepackaged, or canned. If lentils are bought in bulk, be sure the store has adequate turnover and the lentils are fresh. Canned lentils retain their nutritional value, making them a good alternative for a quick addition to any meal. Many grocery stores now carry a number of different varieties of lentils. The availability of lentils and other legumes in grocery stores and not just specialty stores is making it easier for health professionals to encourage patients to increase their intake of these healthy foods and for patients to be able to do so successfully. Hopefully this is turning the tide to accessibility and healthier eating habits for all people.
- Tantamango YM, Knutsen SF, Beeson WL, et al. Foods and food groups associated with the incidence of colorectal polyps: the Adventist Health Study. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63:565-572.
- Aune D, De Stefani E, Ronco A, et al. Legume intake and the risk of cancer: a multisite case-control study in Uruguay. Cancer Causes Control. 2009;20:1605-1615.
- Agurs-Collins T, Smoot D, Afful J, et al. Legume intake and reduced colorectal adenoma risk in African-Americans. J Natl Black Nurses Assoc. 2006;17:6-12.
- Colorectal (colon) cancer incidence rates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. www.cdc.gov/features/dsColorectalCancer/. Accessed January 20, 2012.
- ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture Web site. www.choosemyplate.gov/. Accessed January 20, 2012.
- The New American Plate. American Institute for Cancer Research Web site. www.aicr.org/new-american-plate/. Accessed January 20, 2012.