When was the last time you cooked with lentils? If you’re like most Americans, it wasn’t too recently—if you ever have. What a shame! Lentils are often called the “poor man’s meat” because they have lots protein. But there’s nothing poor about what they can do for your health (they can help you feel great), and there’s an unlimited number of delicious ways you can prepare them.

To help you get great health benefits and enjoyment from lentils, Bottom Line went to someone who grew up in Sri Lanka eating them three times a day—and who now happens to be one of the world’s leading lentil biofortification scientists: Dil Thavarajah, PhD, a plant physiologist at Clemson University. Here are her top reasons to dig into lentils…and her favorite easy-to-make lentil recipe…

LENTILS DELIVER ON NUTRIENTS

Lentils provide a wide array of micronutrients, including iron, zinc, selenium, potassium, These nutrients help enhance red blood cell formation, thyroid function, eye health and wound healing and help prevent birth defects, among other benefits. Lentils are also a great source of fiber as well as polyphenols, which are bioactive compounds credited with promoting health and helping prevent diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer. In terms of protein, one cup of cooked lentils has 24 grams, close to the protein content of three ounces of chicken.

LENTILS KEEP YOUR GUT HAPPY

Eating lentils improves your gut microbiome, or healthful gut bacteria, thanks to their high level of prebiotic carbohydrates. You can even double their prebiotic content by cooking lentils, cooling them in the fridge and then reheating them at meal time. (You’ll still get some of the prebiotic boost if you decide to have them cold in a salad, though not as much as if you reheat them.)

Having more “good bacteria” in your gut is key to losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight, improving insulin sensitivity and reducing cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations, Thavarajah said.

The dietary fiber in lentils also keeps your digestive system happy and humming along. One cup of cooked lentils has on average 15 to 20 g of fiber, half the daily requirement.

LENTILS REDUCE BLOOD SUGAR

According to a new study done at Agriculture and Agri Food Canada’s Guelph Research and Development Centre, simply replacing half a serving of rice with lentils lowered the rise in blood sugar caused by rice alone by about 20%, and replacing half a potato portion with lentils lowered the blood sugar rise caused by potatoes alone by 35%. This is important if you’re trying to manage—or prevent—diabetes or prediabetes. Study author Dan Ramdath, PhD, explained that lentil consumption is followed by a slow rise in blood sugar, possibly due to the combined effects of starch that is resistant to digestion (called resistant starch) and starch that is rapidly digested starch.

Note: The researchers replaced only half the servings of potatoes and rice for the study because people typically eat lentils in combination with other starches as part of a larger meal—but feel free to replace 100% of your rice or potatoes or even pasta with great-for-you lentils.

FAST FACTS

The lentils used in the Guelph study were ordinary varieties found at most markets. Even though some recipes call for a particular color of lentil—brown, green, French green, red or black—all varieties are nutritious. The color of some lentils can change dramatically with cooking. For instance, red lentils, which are actually a salmon color in the package, will turn yellow.

Unlike beans, the dried lentils you buy don’t need to be pre-soaked before cooking, making them very convenient to use. They’re a key ingredient in Indian, Middle Eastern and Southern US cooking, so you can explore many cuisines and never get bored.

DIL THAVARAJAH’S SRI LANKAN LENTIL MEAL IN MINUTES

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 cup red lentils, dry
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, curry powder and chili pepper, more as desired
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 pounds raw spinach or kale, rinsed
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the lentils and then add to a wide saucepan along with the oil, onion, tomato, parsley, garlic, ginger, water and spices. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the lentils are tender. Add the coconut milk and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes. Add in the fresh spinach or kale and cook until the greens are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For more ways to cook lentils, check out the downloadable recipe books from  , a marketing group for lentils and other pulses.