Diet Detective’s Healthy Food Pick: Lentils

by Charles Platkin, PhD

The Why: These legumes are incredibly rich in protein and low in calories, which is particularly important for active women who want rich protein sources without gaining weight. They’re also loaded with fiber, which means that lentils provide a great deal of energy without spiking blood sugar levels. According to the prestigious Cochrane Systematic Review, “When foods are eaten the body breaks them down into their components, and one component will be sugar. Different foods break down at different rates. Lentils, for instance, generate a long, gentle release of sugars, while foods like white bread send a sudden rush of sugar into the blood stream. Foods that release sugars rapidly are said to have a high glycemic index — those that release it slowly have a low glycemic index.”

Lentils also contain vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), and folate, all of which are said to have a role in increasing the production of energy in the body. According to research from Oregon State University that was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, these micronutrients are necessary for converting proteins and sugars into energy and are also used during the production and repair of cells, including red blood cells. And if you’re physically active, according to the Oregon State researchers, “The stress on the body’s energy producing pathways during exercise, the changes in the body’s tissues resulting from training, an increase in the loss of nutrients in sweat, urine and feces during and after strenuous activity and the additional nutrients needed to repair and maintain higher levels of lean tissue mass present in some athletes and individuals may all affect an individual’s B-vitamin requirements.”

Health Perks: Aside from the fiber and B-vitamins, lentils are packed with iron (one cup has 37 percent of Daily Values), which active (and inactive) women certainly need. Iron is an essential mineral necessary for the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, and myoglobin, which carries oxygen in muscle tissue. It is also essential for the regulation of cell growth and differentiation. If you don’t get enough iron, it limits oxygen delivery to the cells, resulting in fatigue, poor work performance, decreased immunity, and, during childhood, difficulty in maintaining body temperature.

Also, as mentioned, lentils are extremely high in folate (one cup has 90 percent of Daily Values), which is widely known to reduce the risk of certain serious birth defects, such as spina bifida, and is, therefore, extremely important for women of childbearing age. But folate has many other important functions as well. It helps the body form genetic material (DNA) and blood cells and may reduce the level of the amino acid homocysteine, which has been implicated in cardiovascular disease. And, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, folate may protect against cognitive decline in older adults.

Other important vitamins and minerals found in lentils include magnesium (one cup has 18 percent of Daily Values) and potassium (one cup contains 22 percent of Daily Values). Magnesium helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, keeps heart rhythm steady, supports a healthy immune system, and keeps bones strong. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels, promotes normal blood pressure, and is involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Potassium is necessary for muscle contractions, transmission of nerve impulses, and maintaining the delicate balance of fluid and electrolyte regulation.

Nutritional value: (1 cup, cooked) 230 calories; 1 g fat; 40 g carbohydrates; 16 g fiber; 18 g protein.

Recipe: Spiced Eggplant-Lentil Salad with Mango
Healthy Recipe by EatingWell Magazine.

Spiced eggplant, lentils, and mangoes combine deliciously in this Indian-inspired vegetarian salad. Customize the spiciness of this by choosing mild, medium, or hot versions of salsa, chili powder, and curry powder. The flavor is even better when the salad is prepared ahead.

4 servings, about 2 cups each | Active Time: 45 minutes | Total Time: 45 minutes


  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil or olive oil, divided
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons chili powder, divided
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons curry powder, divided
  • 2 medium eggplants (3/4 pound each), trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/3 cup lemon or lime juice, plus more if desired
  • 1/4 cup prepared salsa
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked lentils (see Tip) or one 15-ounce can, rinsed
  • 2 bunches scallions, coarsely chopped (reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish)
  • 4 cups torn romaine lettuce
  • 2 large ripe mangoes, peeled and diced (see Tip)
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped roasted peanuts or cashews
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro


1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees.

2. Combine 1 tablespoon oil with 2 teaspoons each chili powder and curry powder in a large bowl. Add eggplant and toss well. Spread the eggplant on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Roast, stirring once halfway through, until tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Thoroughly combine the remaining 3 tablespoons oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon each chili powder and curry powder, 1/3 cup lemon (or lime) juice, salsa, honey, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Add the roasted eggplant, lentils, and scallions; gently toss to combine. Taste and season with more pepper and/or lemon (or lime) juice, if desired.

4. Serve the salad on a bed of romaine, topped with mango, nuts, cilantro, and the reserved 2 tablespoons scallions.

Nutrition Per serving: 485 calories; 20 g fat; 3 g saturated; 9 g mono; 0 mg cholesterol; 75 g carbohydrates; 13 g protein; 16 g fiber; 275 mg sodium; 1,051 mg potassium.

Tips and Notes

  • Make-Ahead Tip: Prepare through Step 3, cover and refrigerate for up to one day.
  • Kitchen Tip: To cook lentils, combine 1/2 cup red or brown lentils in a medium saucepan with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat so the lentils boil gently, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 12 to 18 minutes (red lentils cook more quickly than brown). Makes 1 1/2 cups.
  • Kitchen Tip: To peel and dice a mango, slice both ends off the mango, revealing the long, slender seed inside. Set the fruit upright on a work surface and remove the skin with a sharp knife. With the seed perpendicular to you, slice the fruit from both sides of the seed, yielding two large pieces. Turn the seed parallel to you and slice the two smaller pieces of fruit from each side. Dice into desired size.
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