Loaded with fiber, folate, iron, protein, and other vitamins and minerals, lentils are a nutritional fountain of youth. Researchers who studied the elderly found that eating these earthy-tasting seeds (and other legumes) is the single most important dietary factor in longevity.
Let's start with the folate. Lentils contain more of this important B vitamin than any other unfortified plant food. In addition to protecting against coronary artery disease by lowering levels of homocysteine in the blood, folate helps prevent birth defects. And folate coupled with vitamin B6 (also plentiful in lentils) may help reduce women's risk of developing breast cancer.
When it comes to fiber, a mere half cup of lentils provides around a third of your daily requirements. Thanks to this fiber, your body absorbs the energy from lentils slowly, which helps keep blood-sugar levels even. About a quarter of lentil's fiber is soluble, which helps lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease and keeping your digestive system running smoothly.
Lentils also deliver an impressive amount of blood-fortifying iron -- especially when paired with a food containing vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or peppers. And like other legumes, lentils are a significant (and virtually fat-free) source of protein.
How to Buy
The most common type of lentils sold in the United States are the relatively large, all-purpose brewer. Whether you purchase lentils prepackaged or in bulk, look for those that appear largely unbroken (bags with broken lentils appear "dusty"). Buy from a source that has a good turnover, and when you get home, don't mix newly purchased lentils with older ones; the older they are, the longer they take to cook. Keep them stored in a cool, dry place, and they will stay fresh for several months.
While lentils share many health benefits with their legume cousins, they gain a distinct edge when it comes to preparation: Lentils need no presoaking, and they cook in less than an hour (in some cases, under 30 minutes). Of all the kinds available, red lentils cook the fastest, because they are sold with their hulls removed. But they also provide less fiber than the black, brown, or green varieties, which come with their hulls intact. Sort through lentils before cooking them to remove any small stones or twigs. Spreading them out on a platter with a contrasting color will make this task easier. Then briefly rinse the lentils.
When you cook them, make sure you avoid cast-iron or aluminum cookware, because these materials can adversely affect lentils' appearance and also may lengthen cooking time.
Text by Cheryl Redmond; recipes by Sandra Gluck