Lentils are basically edible seeds of plants belonging to the legume family. They are easily recognized for their lens shape and are marketed with or without their external husks.
While lentils are a staple food in the Asian as well as North African nations, currently Canada is the largest producer of this legume.
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In fact, lentils are considered to be among the oldest health foods of the world. Initially, cultivators grew these lens-shaped beans in the Middle East. It earliest cultivation in the region dates back to 8,000 B.C. and gradually they have made their way to the Western countries. Some interesting facts about lentils are that while the ancient Greeks considered these beans to be a poor man's food, in ancient Egypt, this legume was said to be a feast for the royals.
Although the cultivation of lentils started sometime around 8,000 B.C. in the Middle East, they arrived in the Americas in the beginning of the sixteenth century. During the World War II, lentils were seen as an inexpensive, but high protein substitute of meat.
Lentils are available in various different types. The most common lentils are brown, red and green. Lentils are considered to be gluten-free and this is one reason why dieticians prefer these lens-shaped beans. They are known to be loaded with several nutrients. Even cooks have a preference for lentils because of their subtle flavour that makes these beans the ideal canvas for seasonings and various other ingredients.
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Often lentils are categorized according to their color, which may vary from red and yellow to green and even be black or brown. Below is a brief description of the various types of lentils:
Brown lentil: This type of lentils is consumed most widely. Their flavour is earthly and they are able to retain their shape well even while cooking. Moreover, brown lentils are an excellent addition to soups.
Puy lentil: This type of lentil is grown the Le Puy, a region in France, and, hence, the name. The color of puy lentils are same as the green lentils, but compared to the green lentils, their size is about just one-third. The flavour of puy lentils is peppery.
Green lentil: The size of is type of lentils differ and they are generally cheaper to compared to puy lentils in cuisines.
Yellow and red lentils: Generally, these two varieties of lentils are split and, hence, they cook faster. They are wonderful for preparing dal (a type of cereal) and their taste is somewhat sweet, while the flavour is nutty.
Beluga lentil: This variety of lentils is tiny and has a black color that its appearance is very much like caviar. Beluga lentil is an excellent base for making warm salads.
Each of the above varieties of lentils has their own distinctive composition, which includes phytochemicals and antioxidants.
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When lentils are compared to other types of beans, they rank second in protein content, second only to soy beans. When lentils are combined with whole grains, such as brown rice, they provide us with almost the same quantity of protein that we get from meat. On the other hand, if you just consume lentils rather than eating processed or red meat, you actually make a choice that is healthier for your heart.
Protein is essential for our body since it is a building block of muscles, bones as well as our skin. In addition, it helps to keep you satiated and curb hunger for a longer period compared to other nutrients.
Lentils are loaded with dietary fiber and, hence, they fill you up and not make you crave for food for long periods. One serving of lentils provides you with 32 percent of your daily requirement for dietary fiber. At the same time, consuming lentils helps to lower the cholesterol levels and also protects you from serious diseases like diabetes and cancer. Moreover, consuming foods containing enough dietary fiber every day helps to pass the waste products through the digestive system smoothly, thereby preventing constipation.
Lentils also contain various other nutrients like folate, iron and potassium - which are extremely beneficial for our physical and mental health. Potassium is effective in neutralizing the negative effects of salt and helps to lower the blood pressure. Folate, an essential vitamin, helps to protect our heart and, at the same time, helps the body in producing red blood cells (erythrocytes). Folate is necessary for pregnant women as it helps in the development of the fetus. Similarly, iron provides energy and erases fatigue.
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All our organs and the muscles require steady supply of protein for the growth of the body as well as repair the injured areas. Lentils, particularly, sprouted lentils, enclose all the essential amino acids required by our body for the smooth functioning of our body and also to build healthy muscles.
Since lentils are loaded with dietary fiber, they help to digest the ingested foods regularly provided we consume them on a regular basis. Lentils also help in easing movement of bowels, which decreases the risk of developing constipation. However, lentils have a propensity to cause gas formation in the stomach and bloating, it is advisable that you always consume soaked lentils as it is easier to digest them.
Since the fat content of lentils is very negligible, they are considered to be a perfect source of protein and when consumed, they do not add any additional fat to our body. In this way, consuming lentils help in improving the health of our heart. Lentils also contain essential minerals such as potassium and magnesium, both of which help in unwinding the muscles of our cardiovascular system and, at the same time, lowers the blood pressure.
Consuming lentils on a regular basis supplies us with enough antioxidants that diminish the risks of atherosclerosis. In addition, antioxidants in lentils have a vital role in counteracting the harmful free radicals. In this way, they help to prevent damages to the cells and gene (which occurs naturally as we age).
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Findings of several studies show that plant-based lectins, which is a different type of plant protein that have their origin in foods such as lentils, soybeans, peanuts, wheat and peas have a positive effect on the cancer cells. Studies have revealed that these lectins lead to apoptosis and cytotoxicity. In other words, these lectins have the potential to check carcinogenic growth.
Lentils are also an excellent source of vitamin B-complex, for instance folic acid or folate. Folic acid is highly beneficial for pregnant women as consuming it helps in avoiding birth defects. Absence of folic acid or folate usually results in defects in the neural tube. Lentils contain folate, which aids in red blood cell formation, which is highly beneficial for pregnant women. In this way, consumption of lentils plays an effective role in maintaining the health of pregnant women and the fetus by maintaining the levels of homocysteine levels. Folate or folic acid is also said to be effective against DNA damage and controlling hypertension. Often, DNA damage may lead to cancer.
Findings of many studies recommend that lentils should be consumed regularly because they not only help in enhancing satiety, but also help in maintaining a healthy weight.
For a long time people believed that the vitamins and minerals contained in lentils had no effect on the brain's functioning. Nevertheless, advanced studies suggested that minerals and vitamins are vital for the proper functioning of the brain. In fact, vitamins and minerals present in lentils help the brain to function optimally.
Lentils are rich in iron content and iron is essential for our body for production of optimum hemoglobin. Our body can obtain nearly 36 percent of our daily recommended value of iron by consuming one cup (200 grams) of lentil daily.
Potassium is another essential mineral found in lentils and compared to sodium, potassium is considered to be a better alternative for electrolytic activity. In fact, several diseases are related to very high levels of sodium and poor levels of potassium in the body. In addition to serving as an electrolyte, potassium also facilitates the functioning of several organs, which include the heart, kidneys and brain.
Aside from the essential minerals mentioned above, lentils are an excellent source of several vitamins, which include vitamin B3. In fact, vitamin B3 plays a vital role in our digestive as well as nervous systems. It boosts the functioning of these two systems. In addition, vitamin B3 offers several other health benefits, which include keeping the cholesterol levels under control, and also enhancing the lipid profile.
It is quite easy to cook lentils. Different from many other types of legumes, it is not necessary to soak lentils before cooking them. You can cook lentils in less than 20 minutes. In fact, the best way to cook lentils is to rinse them prior to cooking so that all impurities are removed.
After rinsing the lentils you can place them in a pot, add sufficient water and salt. Cover the pot and bring its contents to boil. Once the lentils boil, remove the cover and allow them to simmer for anything between 15 and 20 minutes.
Your lentil preparation may be somewhat crisp or soft, depending on what your preference is. After the lentils are boiled, drain them and subsequently rinse them in cold water to prevent them from cooking further.
A number of lentil varieties, such as split orange lentils, take just 5 minutes to cook. They are an excellent choice when you have to prepare a last-minute meal or you want to add some dishes to a meal you have already cooked.
You can also cook lentils in large batches and use them both for lunch as well as dinner all through the week or use them alternatively for lunch or dinner. Cooked lentils remain edible for as many as five days when stored in a refrigerator.
Lentils contain some amounts of anti-nutrients, which are reduced considerably after cooking. You can reduce the levels of anti-nutrients in lentils further by soaking them overnight prior to cooking.