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16 May 2006

The Food Guys: Don’t Forget about Lentils
when Considering Healthy Legumes

By Dr. Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D., & Al Harris, M.P.A.
Jacksonville State University

DOC: Hey Al. After our recent discussion about chana dahl, I remembered a much-loved recipe that I haven’t prepared in years — lentil soup. When I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I made this soup frequently because it was very tasty, along with being cheap and easy.

I’m surprised at the number of people who are unfamiliar with this healthy legume. The lentil is a relative of your favorite "dahl" and is similar in nutritional value. One-half cup of cooked lentils has 115 calories, less than 1/2 gram of fat, 8 grams of fiber, 9 grams of protein and 179 mcg of folate.

Plus, lentils have a lower glycemic index than most beans and peas. The fiber in lentils combines with cholesterol and helps excrete it from the body while the folate helps to lower levels of homocysteine, an artery-damaging substance, in the bloodstream. So lentils are definitely a heart-healthy food. In addition, their low glycemic index stabilizes blood sugar, which is a plus for diabetics.

Would this recipe fit into your vegetarian meal plan? Any suggestions for incorporating lentils into a healthy diet?


2 cups dried lentils, rinsed well
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 cup tomato sauce
4 to 5 cups water
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté garlic and onion in olive oil until onion is transparent. Add tomato sauce, water and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Add dried lentils. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for approximately 1 hour or until lentils are tender. Season to taste.

AL: Doc, I must confess I have a poor relationship with a couple of ingredients in your recipe. Although I can almost smell the delightful aroma as I imagine your pot of soup simmering on the stove, I know up front that fresh garlic and onion give me "ramifications."

While almost everyone has a personal list of problem foods, there’s usually a solution such as substituting or eliminating ingredients. I favor substituting.

To experience something close to your original recipe, I would tinker around in the following ways. First, those of us who need to avoid fresh garlic and onion can sometimes get away with using a small amount of powered onion and, say, garlic salt (remember to reduce the salt called for in the recipe) or powder.

But, like you, I value fresh ingredients when possible. Through trial and error, I’ve found that a small amount of garlic scrapings give the taste of fresh garlic cloves without the digestive ills. Garlic, a member of the lily family, is easy to grow and produces a bulb composed of cloves. I simply take scrapings from the green shoots that grow out of the tops of the plant — and, for me, a little of that pungent flavor goes a long way.

Another benefit is that the process seems to help the plant produce larger bulbs, which I give away for others to enjoy.

People who have issues with onions should experiment to see if the problem is limited to raw or cooked onion. Interestingly, many folks who think they cannot eat onion at all are surprised to find they’re able to enjoy it sautéed, for example (unfortunately, I cannot).

So, when faced with a delicious recipe containing a few problem ingredients, get innovative.

Your recipe is ideal for the vegetarian lifestyle and can be enjoyed by the entire family. And for anyone who enjoys lentils, I also highly recommend The Pea and Lentil Cookbook — From Everyday to Gourmet, published by the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, for similar creative ways to add lentils to your diet.


Debra Goodwin, Ph.D., R.D., teaches nutrition in the Jacksonville (Ala.) State University Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Al Harris, M.P.A., is News Bureau director at JSU and the former writer/editor of a nutrition column published by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group.

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