Benefits of Beans and Lentils as a Carbohydrate Source

Benefits of Beans and Lentils as a Carbohydrate Source

If you think of your body as a car, then carbohydrates are the fuel that powers the body. Carbohydrates, both simple or complex, are broken down by the body into glucose which provides us with energy. However, not all carbs are equal in composition. There are in fact two different basic types of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are composed of three elements: fiber, starch, and sugar. Fiber and starch are what we define as complex carbs, whereas sugar is a simple carb. The amount of each of these components that is found in food determines its nutrient quality. The main difference between complex and simple carbs is the rate of digestion and absorption. As the names suggest, simple carbohydrates are digested and absorbed at a much faster rate than complex carbs. This ease of digestion, coupled with the rapid absorption cause a spike in blood sugar which in turn causes a quick energy boost.

Complex carbohydrates take a lengthier amount of time to complete this process and they provide the body with vital nutrients along the way. Additionally, they contain indigestible fibers that the body cannot break down, but they are beneficial to both gut health and elimination of stool.

Examples of simple carbs: refined bread, cookies, sugar and sugary drinks.
Examples of complex carbs: lentils, beans, squash and vegetables.

Lentils and Beans

Lentils, a tiny but mighty member of the legume family, and beans are both naturally low in fat, very high in fiber and rich in antioxidants and minerals. Furthermore, they both supply a fierce punch of protein and are great source for vegans and vegetarians. Both offer a myriad of health benefits, including the ability to improve and maintain heart health, aid in healthy weight loss, combat blood sugar instabilities, and help lead to an improved digestive health.

Beans and lentils fit into more than one food group. They serve as a great source of healthy complex carbohydrates as well as being a solid source of protein. They are a fantastic meat substitute, unlike many other proteins they contain no fat, and no cholesterol. They can in fact help in reducing cholesterol. They are also naturally gluten-free, and have an outstandingly low glycemic index making them suitable for both a gluten-free and diabetic diet.

Lentils and Beans for Heart Health

I’m sure we all remember singing “beans, beans good for the heart” as a kid! It always left everyone in fits of laughter, and more recently researchers have suggested that eating beans and pulses can indeed significantly reduce cholesterol levels and lead to improvements in heart health. Studies show that both beans and lentils are an extremely good source of soluble fiber, which makes them the ideal candidates for lowering cholesterol and in turn reducing risk of heart disease. If you uphold healthy levels of cholesterol it can reduce any potential damage to your arteries and prevent unsafe plaque from building up. This significantly reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition to being naturally low in fat, beans and lentils are also very low in sodium, two key factors for a heart healthy diet.

All beans and peas can also assist in lowering blood pressure given their high content of fiber, potassium, and magnesium. Canned versions can provide the same advantages as fresh, if they do not contain added sugar, fat or salt. Elevated blood pressure can have direct effects on heart health. It is therefore imperative to maintain a healthy blood pressure.

By consuming fewer simple carbs and more complex carbohydrates it also preserves a healthier level of blood glucose and insulin, and avoids any spikes. This in turn serves as a prevention for diabetes. Given that diabetes is an acknowledged risk factor for developing heart disease, a diet rich in legumes can support the prevention of both diabetes and heart disease.

Due to the high fiber levels in beans and lentils, the release of sugar into the body is slowed down dramatically, which circumvents any spikes in blood sugar. When the blood sugar spikes, the body produces more insulin in response. As times goes by, the body develops a resistance to higher levels of insulin.

How to prepare Lentils

To boil dried lentils, use three cups of liquid for each cup of lentils. If you boil the water first before adding the lentils, they are easier to digest than if you bring the water to a boil with the lentils. Once the water returns to a boil, lower the heat, bring to a simmer and cover. Green lentils usually require about 30 minutes to cook, while red lentils take about 20 minutes. Depending on how you are planning on using your lentils, i.e. if you want a firmer texture (perhaps for a salad), cooking times may need to be adjusted slightly.

To store lentils, keep them in an airtight container in a cool, dark and dry place. Lentils can keep up to 12 months if they are stored this way. If you buy lentils at different times, make sure to store them separately. You can keep cooked lentils in the refrigerator for up to three days in an airtight container.

Cooking and preparing beans

There are many types of beans, all of which can create gaseous conditions in our digestive systems. There are preparation techniques that will reduce these potential indigestion issues:

  • Soak the beans. This not only reduces cooking time significantly, but it also preserves some vitamins and minerals that can be lost during prolonged cooking. Use a ratio of about 3:1 or 4:1 of water to beans. Please note that lentils, split peas and black-eyed peas do not require soaking.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the larger the beans are the longer that they need to soak. Fortunately, this also means that they then cook faster.
  • Do not add salt, or baking soda! Add salt if desired when you cook them.

The easiest thing to do is to let the beans soak overnight. After soaking them, pour out the water and use fresh water for cooking. Much like lentils, be sure to store beans in an airtight container, in a cool, dark and dry place.

Some recipes to get you started:

Stephanie Contomichalos
Stephanie Contomichalos - Author

Stephanie Contomichalos is a sports enthusiast. She is an avid crossfitter, wakeboarder and has recently qualified as a Level 1 CrossFit coach. She is also an advocate for women’s sport and for using sport as a tool for development. She is currently living in Athens, Greece. To connect with Stephanie, follow her on Twitter (@ssconto) or on Instagram.


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