Lentils have long been staples in the human diet -- they were first cultivated over 8,000 years ago and were most likely introduced to the United States in the early 1900s. Because of their long shelf life, widespread availability and relatively low-cost, lentils are an economical and convenient addition to your pantry. They have lots of nutritional value, in the form of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and work well in a variety of recipes.
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Lentils serve as a moderate source of energy -- 165 calories per quarter cup of dry lentils, which yields roughly a half cup of cooked lentils. Lentils are very low in fat, so most of these calories come from protein and carbohydrates. Each serving provides 12.4 grams of protein, a source of amino acids your body uses to maintain your immune system and synthesize hormones. Lentils contain "incomplete" protein because they're missing the amino acids methionine and cystine, so combine them with other protein sources -- such as whole grains, dairy, eggs or meat -- to prevent an amino acid deficiency. A serving of lentils contains about 29 grams of carbohydrates, including 14.6 grams of fiber. Fiber helps reduce your blood cholesterol level, and a diet rich in fiber combats constipation.
Lentils also boost your vitamin intake, especially vitamin B-1, also called thiamin, and vitamin B-9, also called folate. Your body uses thiamin to process nutrients, including proteins and carbohydrates, and also relies on vitamin B-1 for healthy brain function. A serving of lentils provides 0.42 milligram of thiamin, which is 35 percent of the recommended daily intake for men and 38 for women. They also have 230 micrograms of folate, or 58 percent of the recommended daily intake. Like thiamin, folate helps process protein. It also regulates gene activity and maintains healthy red blood cells.
Eat lentils for copper and magnesium, two essential minerals. Your body uses both minerals to activate enzymes essential for energy production, and relies on magnesium to maintain healthy bone tissue. Copper keeps DNA healthy, because it acts as an antioxidant to protect tissue from mutation-causing free radicals. A serving of lentils has 59 milligrams of magnesium -- 18 percent of the recommended daily intake for women and 14 percent for men -- and 249 micrograms of copper, or 28 percent of the recommended daily intake.
Eating More Lentils
Add a handful of green lentils to turkey chilli as it cooks to boost your meal's nutritional value, or cook pink lentils, along with your favorite vegetables, in a mixture of warming spices, no-sodium broth and crushed tomatoes for a convenient and filling main course. Serve your meal with a slice of whole-grain toast to get all the amino acids your body needs. Alternatively, blend cooked lentils together with mushrooms, whole-grain bread crumbs, chili pepper and cumin, and then shape the mixture into patties for vegetarian lentil burgers.