Lentils are the unsung heroes of the nutrition world. Inexpensive and versatile, lentils are rich in protein and fiber but low in fat. They are relatively low in calories and a good source of vitamins and minerals. As a low glycemic index, or GI, food, lentils are also an ideal source of slow-burning energy that may have additional benefits to human health, says the University of Sydney, Australia.
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The glycemic index, or GI, is a ranking of carbohydrate-rich foods on a scale of 0 to 100 according to the degree they influence blood glucose levels after consumption. High GI foods have a score of 70 or greater and cause a quick rise in blood glucose. Low GI foods are ranked 55 or lower due to their slower release of energy. A diet based on low glycemic index foods may help with weight control and heart health, says a 2007 Cochrane Intervention Review.
Dried lentils come in a variety of colors ranging from small green lentils to orange split lentils to whole brown lentils. According to the University of Sydney's glycemic index database of foods, all lentils are ranked as low glycemic index. A 150 g serving of dried split red lentils, boiled, has a GI of 21. The glycemic index of dried green lentils, boiled, varies from 22 to 37. Canned lentils have a slightly higher GI with canned brown lentils and canned green lentils at 42 and 52, respectively.
Other Health Benefits
In addition to being a low GI food, lentils have many other health benefits. Lentils are a low-fat source of protein; one cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein. As an excellent source of fiber, lentils provide insoluble fiber to aid bowel regularity and soluble fiber to benefit heart health. Lentils are also rich in important vitamins and minerals such as folate, potassium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Lentils can be bought dried or canned. Supermarkets sell lentils but an ethnic market or health-food store may have a greater selection from which to choose. Dried lentils are sold in prepackaged bags or in the bulk-bin area. Once purchased, dried lentils keep indefinitely in an airtight container if kept in a cool, dry place. Canned lentils are more convenient because they do not require any cooking before use, but they contain more sodium than their dried counterparts.
Unlike dried beans, which have to be soaked before cooking, lentils can be cooked immediately. This makes them a convenient staple to keep in the kitchen. With their subtle flavor and texture, they add interest to a variety of dishes. Use red or brown lentils to replace or extend ground beef in recipes. Add lentils to soups or stews to thicken and add body. Mix French green lentils with seasonal vegetables and vinaigrette for a side salad. Puree cooked lentils with spices to make dal or to use as an alternative spread to hummus.