I admit it. I am completely obsessed with lentils. Green, brown, yellow, red, black, small, large, humble or gourmet, lentils rock my world. And you need to let them rock yours, too.
Around 6000 BC, lentils (along with barley and wheat) were staples of ancient Greek eating, commonly enjoyed in a sort of soup called ‘phake.’ While the wealthy eschewed the humble lentil as poor man’s food, Hippocrates (yup, the father of medicine) was recommending them for liver ailments. Modern medicine shows us he was right. Lentils’ rich concentration of choline has been shown to help aid the liver in ridding itself of fat so it can perform its functions more effectively.
In ancient Rome, while also considered the food of the poor, lentils became part of the lore of Italy, thought to bring good fortune, as they resembled coins. To this day, lentil dishes are eaten on New Year’s Eve to attract prosperity in the coming year.
In our modern world, the tiny lentil is a powerhouse of nutrition…and so quick and easy to cook, you’ll have no excuse not to incorporate these babies into your diet. And you won’t want to either, since they are supremely yummy.
Lentils are an excellent source of molybdenum, copper, phosphorus, and manganese. Additionally they are a good source of iron, protein, vitamin B1, pantothenic acid, zinc, potassium, and vitamin B6.
But it gets better.
Lentils are a very good source of cholesterol-lowering fiber (both soluble and insoluble) and are of special benefit in managing blood-sugar disorders since their high fiber content prevents blood sugar levels from rising rapidly after a meal.
Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance in the digestive tract that snares bile (which contains cholesterol) and shuttles it right out of the body. Research studies have shown that insoluble fiber not only helps to increase stool bulk and prevent constipation, but also helps prevent digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulosis.
In a study that examined food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary heart disease, researchers followed more than 16,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Finland, The Netherlands, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece and Japan for 25 years. When researchers analyzed all their data in relation to the risk of death from heart disease, they found that legumes, particularly lentils, were associated with a whopping 82% reduction in risk!
But here’s why lentils are such a heart hero: the significant amounts of folate and magnesium these little jewel-like beans supply. Folate (and B-6) helps lower levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is an intermediate product in an important metabolic process, immediately converting homocysteine into cysteine or methionine, both of which are benign. When these B vitamins are not available, levels of homocysteine increase in the bloodstream—a bad idea since homocysteine damages artery walls and is considered a serious risk factor for heart disease.
Lentils’ magnesium levels create another plus of its beneficial cardiovascular effects. Magnesium relaxes veins and arteries which reduces resistance and improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.
Finally, little lentils help increase your energy by replenishing your iron stores. Why lentils? Because, unlike red meat, (which is another source of iron), lentils are not rich in saturated fat and calories (only 230 calories a cup and virtually no fat). Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. And the iron from lentils is easily digested and utilized by the body.
So you see, there’s more to lentils than your Nonna’s soup. In fact, that humble soup shows you just how smart she really was!