What’s cheap, easy, high in protein, vegetarian, and vegan-friendly? Yes, lentils are all those things. But don’t leave ‘em just for the veggie lovers— meat eaters will be surprised by how versatile this legume is, not to mention the health benefits, ranging from essential nutrients to decreasing inflammation.

Lentil Love — The Need-to-Know

Less than 10 percent of Americans eat legumes (like lentils) on any given day, and the other 90 percent are seriously missing outConsumption of dry beans, peas, and lentils could improve diet quality in the US population. Mitchell, D.C., Lawrence, F.R., Hartman, T.J., et al. Diet Assessment Center, Department of Nutritional Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, 108 Chandlee, University Park, PA. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009 May;109(5):909-13.. Lentils are high in protein and other essential nutrients, including folate, iron, potassium, and a slew of antioxidants, each lending a special nutritional handPhenolic substance characterization and chemical and cell-based antioxidant activities of 11 lentils grown in the northern United States. Xu, B., Chang, S.K. Food Science and Technology Program, Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College, Zhuhai, Guangdong 519085, China. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2010 Feb 10;58(3):1509-17.Evaluation of phenolic profile and antioxidant properties of Pardina lentil as affected by industrial dehydration. Aguilera, Y., Dueñas, M., Estrella, I., et al. Instituto de Ciencias de la Alimentación (CIAL), Departamento de Química Agrícola, Facultad de Ciencias, C/Nicolás Cabrera 9, Campus Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), 28049-Madrid, Spain. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2010 Sep 22;58(18):10101-8..

The iron may help fight off anemia, which is especially common among those with low-iron diets, like vegans and vegetarians. And lentils are also low on the glycemic index, meaning they cause blood sugar to spike less quickly than other starchesCarbohydrate fractions of legumes: uses in human nutrition and potential for health. Guillon, F., Champ, M.M. URPOI & UFDNH, National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA), Rue de la Géraudière, BP 71627, 44316 Nantes Cedex, 03, France. The British Journal of Nutrition, 2002 Dec;88 Suppl 3:S293-306.. In addition to the specific nutritional benefits, lentils can make a big difference as a whole, too. A diet high in whole grains and legumes may boost weight lossCereal grains, legumes, and weight management: a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence. Williams, P.G., Grafenauer, S.J., O’Shea, J.E. Smart Foods Centre, School of Health Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia. Nutrition Reviews, 2008 Apr;66(4):171-82., and lentils’ slow-burning protein and fiber may be to thank. One study found legumes can keep those bellies full an extra 2 to 4 hours, potentially making them a key to controlling appetite and slimming downPulse consumption, satiety, and weight management. McCrory, M.A., Hamaker, B.R., Lovejoy, J.C., et al. Department of Foods and Nutrition. Advances in Nutrition, 2010 Nov;1(1):17-30. Epub 2010 Nov 16.. Plus, each little lentil is packed with cholesterol-reducing soluble dietary fiber. And if that’s not enough, how’s this: Another study found eating lentils can reduce inflammation, which is associated with everything from heart disease to cancerLegume Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Serum Concentrations of Adhesion Molecules and Inflammatory Biomarkers among Iranian Women. Esmaillzadeh, A., Azadbakht, L. Food Security Research Center, and Department of Community Nutrition, School of Nutrition and Food Science, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan, Iran. The Journal of Nutrition, 2011 Dec 21.Anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based foods and of their constituents. Watzl, B. Department of Physiology and Biochemistry of Nutrition, Max Rubner-Institute, Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food, Karlsruhe, Germany. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 2008 Dec;78(6):293-8..

Let In the Lentils — Your Action Plan

Still not convinced? Just take a look at how it compares to other healthy options. For starters, lentils have three times more fiber than one serving of bran flakes (a popular source)— though we’re not sure how we feel about a nice bowl of lentils with milk. And gram-for-gram, lentils have more protein than beef. Plus they’re a cheap alternative to the beefier stuff when eating on a budget. Fans of quinoa may even be surprised to learn that for about the same amount of calories, a cup of cooked lentils has more than twice the protein and dietary fiber. Unlike other fruits and veggies, which can leach nutrients when cooked, the body actually absorbs the calcium, iron, and zinc from lentils more easily after the lentils are cookedEffect of cooking and legume species upon calcium, iron and zinc uptake by Caco-2 cells. Viadel B, Barberá R, Farré R. Nutrition and Food Chemistry, Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Valencia, Avda. Vicente Andrés Estellés s/n, 46100-Burjassot, Spain. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, 2006;20(2):115-20.. To cook ‘em, rinse under cold water and then cook in plain boiling water (no salt— it can have a hardening effect) according to package instructions. Cooking times vary between varieties but are generally under 30 minutes. But it’s important to cook those lentils all the way through— undercooked ones can cause “gastric distress.” (We’ll let your imagination take over from here.) Those with kidney problems may also want to be careful, as the phosphorous in lentils can be difficult to process.

Recipe: Lentil and Goat Cheese Stuffed Zucchini

Serves 2

What You’ll Need:

1 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise 1 cup cooked brown rice 2 handfuls arugula leaves, chopped finely 4 oz goat cheese ½ cup cooked green lentils ¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves 3 tablespoons olive oil Salt, to taste Pepper, to taste 1 handful grated Parmesan What to Do:

  1. First, make sure to have all of the prepped ingredients ready beforehand: cooked rice, cooked lentils, chopped arugula, chopped mint. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a bowl, mix together rice, arugula, lentils, mint, goat cheese, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. Fill a frying pan with about ¼ inch water, and simmer over medium heat. While the water is warming up, remove the seeds from the zucchini halves so you are left with two zucchini “boats.”
  4. Place zucchini cut side down in the water, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until zucchini is tender but not mushy.
  5. Remove zucchini from pan and dab dry. Fill zucchini with the lentil mixture, and top with Parmesan cheese. Place in a small baking dish and bake until warmed through and until cheese is melted and slightly browned.