After years of abstaining from legumes, some of the titans of the Paleo world are taking a second look at lentils. But even those who don’t follow a caveman’s diet should consider lentils a pantry staple come autumn.
These tiny disk or heart-shaped dried beans were previously vilified alongside other members of the legume family like peas, chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts. Recently, however, their serious nutrient density has given haters pause, and some are even rethinking their stance on the easy-to-prepare lentil.
Let’s start with the basics. Gram for gram, lentils contain more nutrients than beef—and with 18 grams of protein per 100 gram serving, they're perfect for packing into hearty veggie burgers or vegan-friendly chili. And they’re loaded with fiber, which keeps the digestive system healthy while also lowering cholesterol. Because of their protein-fiber combo, lentils are a superfood when it comes to losing weight. In fact, studies suggest that lentils can keep bellies fuller for up to four hours longer than other food groups, which can help dieters from overeating.
The micronutrients found in these tiny, round beans are equally impressive—brimming with magnesium, iron, zinc, B6, and potassium (even more than a banana!), lentils are the perfect food to help boost fall immunity and health. For this reason, lentils are an integral part of an Ayurvedic diet, especially during the cooler months.
Sounds pretty good, right? But for some, there's a catch. Lentils contain phytic acid and lectin, both of which are considered antinutrients—compounds that inhibit the body from absorbing essential vitamins and minerals. This aspect is a major stumbling block for the anti-lentil brigade, and typically is the reason that the Paleo diet recommends avoiding lentils and other legumes.
But lentils are a little bit different than their legume counterparts. For starters, most foods lose a chunk of their nutritional value once they're cooked—but cooking lentils unlocks their full nutritional potential and completely inactivates any lectin.
As for the phytic acid that naturally occurs in lentils, the levels are so low that most would consider it harmless. In fact, other super nutrient-dense foods like swiss chard, spinach, and almonds have hundreds of times higher levels of phytic acid than lentils. If you're worried, soaking lentils for 18 hours before cooking will thoroughly eliminate any lingering antinutrients that might give you pause.
Because of their nutritional benefits, Paleo advocates like Chris Kresser recommend adding lentils into your diet a few times a week, if they don't bother your digestion. For some, the fiber and naturally occurring FODMAPs can cause indigestion. If your stomach is on board, lentils make a filling, inexpensive, and versatile ingredient at nearly every meal. Plus, since lentils need only 20 to 30 minutes to cook, they make an easy side dish to whip up in a pinch.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont
Editor's note: This article was updated on June 14th, 2016.