Real Food VII: Lentils

Monday, May 19, 2008
Lentils are a healthy food that comes with a few caveats. They have more protein and less carbohydrate than any other legume besides soybeans and peanuts, and they contain a remarkable array of vitamins and minerals, particularly B vitamins. One cup delivers 90% of your RDA of folate, so between lentils and liver there's no need for those sketchy prenatal vitamins.

Lentils must be properly prepared to be digestible and nutritious!
I can't emphasize this enough. We did not evolve eating legumes, so we have to take certain steps to be able to digest them adequately. As with all beans and grains, proper soaking is essential to neutralize their naturally occurring toxins and anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are substances that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. Soaking activates enzymes in the seeds themselves that degrade these substances. It also cuts down substantially on cooking time and reduces flatulence.

Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that's abundant in beans, grains and nuts. It can dramatically
reduce the absorption of important minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, leading to deficiencies over time. It may be one of the main reasons human stature decreased after the adoption of agriculture, and it probably continues to contribute to short stature and health problems around the world.

Lentils and other seeds also contain trypsin inhibitors.
Trypsin is one of the digestive system's main protein-digesting enzymes, and seeds probably inhibit it as a defense against predators. Another class of toxins are the lectins. Certain lectins are able to bind to and damage the digestive tract, and even pass into the circulation and possibly wreak havoc. This is a short list of a few of the toxins found in beans and grains. Fortunately, all of these toxins can be reduced or eliminated by proper soaking. I like to soak all legumes for a full 24 hours, adding warm water halfway through. This increases the activity of the toxin-degrading enzymes.

Here's a method for preparing lentils that I've found to be effective. You will actually save time by doing it this way rather than cooking them without soaking, because they cook so much more quickly:
  1. 24 hours before cooking, place dry lentils in a large bowl and cover with 2" of water or more.
  2. After 12 hours or so, drain and cover the lentils with very warm water (not hot tap water).
  3. Drain and rinse before cooking.
  4. To cook, simply cover the soaked lentils with fresh water and boil until tender. I like to add a 2-inch piece of the seaweed kombu to increase mineral content and digestibility.

many thanks to *clarity* for the CC photo