Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or simply looking to cut back on animal protein, you may be wondering which sources of plant-based proteins to include in your diet.
Lentils are budget-friendly legumes that are packed with nutrients. Yet, they often get overshadowed by a more popular plant-based protein source: soy.
Widely consumed around the world, soy products are popular among vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike. And while there are numerous benefits to eating soy, there are also some potential drawbacks, many of which have to do with compounds called phytoestrogens.
Here’s what’s to come in this article:
What You’ll Learn
Ready to get started? Let’s go!
What Are Phytoestrogens?
First, it’s important to define what we’re talking about.
Phytoestrogens are a group of naturally occurring compounds that are found in numerous plant-based foods.
While the prefix “phyto” means plant, the “estrogen” part comes from the fact that its chemical structure resembles the structure of estrogen – a sex hormone present in both men and women.
There are many different phytoestrogens, each with their own unique effects in the body. Some of the most studied include:
- Lignans: found primarily in flax seeds, nuts, grains, and berries
- Isoflavones: found in high amounts in soybeans, but also in wine, grains, and berries
- Resveratrol: famous for giving red wine its health benefits, it’s also found in berries, chocolate, and peanuts
- Quercetin: found in numerous fruits, vegetables, and grains
Many of these phytoestrogens are also antioxidants, which help protect us against numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, some forms of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
So then why are some people concerned about phytoestrogens?
As they have a similar structure to estrogen, phytoestrogens can interact with estrogen receptors in our cells, and either reduce or mimic the effect of estrogen in the body.
What this means in terms of health is not entirely clear and often controversial, as the research is quite mixed on whether or not consuming high amounts of phytoestrogens can increase the risk of breast cancer, impair thyroid function, and affect fertility.
While research generally supports moderate intake of high-phytoestrogen foods in healthy adults, those with hypothyroidism and women dealing with hormonal imbalances should be cautious of high soy intake, and speak with a registered dietitian or physician for personalized recommendations.
Phytoestrogens in Soy vs. Lentils
Again, while phytoestrogens do not need to be avoided completely, and may even have some health benefits, it’s a good idea to only consume moderate amounts of high-phytoestrogen foods such as soy.
This is where our star ingredient comes in. While they also contain some phytoestrogens, the total quantity is much smaller than what’s found in soy.
For example, 100 grams of tofu contain 27150.1 micrograms of total phytoestrogens, which is 744 times more than what’s found in 100 grams of lentils (36.5 micrograms).
Plus, lentils have many other nutritional benefits that make them a great addition to a healthy diet.
Lentils, like soy, are a type of legume. You’ve probably seen bags of them in the grocery store next to the dried beans, or even pre-cooked in the canned foods aisle.
As with beans, these legumes come in a variety of different colors, each with slight differences in texture and color, but all highly nutritious. We’ll cover these in more detail later in the article.
Whatever the variety, one cup of cooked lentils provides around 230 calories, less than 1 gram of fat, and an impressive 18 grams of protein, making them an excellent plant-based substitute for animal protein.
They’re also very high in fiber, with one cup of cooked lentils providing 15 grams of dietary fiber – that’s more than 50% of many individuals’ daily fiber needs!
Additionally, they are an excellent source of numerous vitamins and minerals, including folate, thiamine, niacin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, potassium, and copper.
And the best part? These nutritional benefits come in a budget-friendly package.
Lentil Varieties: Colors and Flavors
While all types of lentils are incredibly nutritious, they each have slightly different flavors and textures when cooked:
- Brown: the most common type, these have an earthy flavor and are super versatile, holding up well in soups but also easily mashed to make veggie burgers.
- Green: the longest-cooking type, they have a slightly peppery taste and remain quite firm after cooking. They’re also a good choice for soups (like in our Italian Lentil Soup!).
- Puy: also known as French, puys tend to have a darker color and smaller size than traditional green ones. They have a slight nutty and peppery flavor, and hold their shape well.
- Beluga: also known as black, they look almost like caviar once cooked, and have a thicker skin than other types. Taste-wise, they have a rich, earthy flavor.
- Yellow and Red: also called split, these are the sweetest in flavor with a slight nuttiness. They’re also quite soft and tend to get mushy when cooked.
Not to be confused with lentils, you’ll also commonly come across yellow split peas, and yellow split mung beans. Both members of the pea family, these are also nutritious options that are often served in a similar style, especially in Indian cooking.
Tips for Cooking
Unlike dried beans, lentils don’t typically need to be soaked before cooking.
However, do contain compounds called antinutrients, which can impair the absorption of some minerals and may cause GI distress in certain individuals.
While the antinutrient content is significantly reduced during cooking, soaking overnight can help decrease these levels even further. As an added bonus, soaking can also cut the cooking time in half!
Regardless of whether you soak them or not, all types of dried legumes should be sifted through to remove any rocks or debris and rinsed well with cool water before cooking.
Once sorted and rinsed, they can be cooked on the stove with water or broth and any seasonings of choice until soft, but not mushy.
Different colors and varieties have slightly different cooking times, so it’s important to follow your recipe’s directions based on the type you’re using. This is especially true with the split type, which will cook more quickly than whole varieties.
As mentioned above, red and yellow varieties are often also referred to as “split.” They’re often found in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, and unlike other types, they cook much faster and tend to become slightly mushy when cooked. In certain recipes, this is a good thing.
Storing and Using Lentils
Keep dried lentils in an airtight container in a cool, dry place in your kitchen, such as a pantry or cupboard. When properly stored, they can last for up to 2-3 years.
So, how can you use these budget-friendly pulses?
Lentils are incredibly versatile. They add a filling heartiness to soups and stews, and can replace meat in a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, be mashed into a veggie burger patty, or even formed into meatless “meatballs.”
To get you started, here are a few of our favorite recipes on Foodal:
- Turmeric Red Lentil Soup with Kale
- Warm French Lentil Salad with Marcona Almonds and Goat Cheese
- Curried Brown Rice and Lentils
Enjoy the Delicious Nutritional Benefits
So, what’s the verdict? Are you ready to start cooking with lentils?
Whether you plan to use them as a protein-packed soy substitute in vegan meals or you’re just eager to try something new, these legumes are full of nutritional benefits, and they’re delicious in so many different types of recipes. Enjoyed cold in a salad, hot in a soup, stew, or dal, or added to a patty and fired up on the grill, it’s the perfect time to add this budget-friendly ingredient to your menu.
Are you already a fan, or is this ingredient new to you? We love hearing from you, so feel free to leave us a message in the comments below!
For even more information on various whole food ingredients and the part that they play in a healthy diet, add these articles to your reading list next:
- Amaranth: A Splendid Gluten-Free Alternative to Wheat
- Beyond Carrots: Foods for Good Eye Health
- Getting to Know Garbanzo Beans: A Closer Look at the Cute Chickpea
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on February 8, 2015. Last updated on December 30, 2019. With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock
The contents of this article have been reviewed and verified by a registered dietitian for informational purposes only. This article should not be construed as personalized or professional medical advice. Foodal and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet, or using supplements or manufactured or natural medications.
About Kelli McGrane, MS, RD
Kelli McGrane is a Denver-based registered dietitian with a lifelong love of food. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in nutrition science from Boston University. As a registered dietitian, she believes in the importance of food to nourish not only your body, but your soul as well. Nutrition is very personal, and you won’t find any food rules here, other than to simply enjoy what you eat.