How to Get the Most Out of Beans and Lentils

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Today, let’s talk about the benefits of beans and lentils, and how to get the most out of them.

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The recent COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to stock up on grocery items like they have never before. I was surprised the other day to find an almost empty aisle at the dried beans section – people have never been so excited about dried beans and lentils before! 

With or without quarantine, these foods have always been a nutritious and important part of our diet. Their cultivation dates back at least 11,000 years in Southeast Asia and Egypt. They are having a resurgence in the current era with modern healthy eating patterns and trends of vegan, vegetarian and plant based eating.

wooden spoons filled with beans and lentils

What are Beans and Lentils?

Beans and lentils are part of the legume family. The edible legumes include:

  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Peas (including green split peas and yellow split peas)
  • Soybeans

They are staple foods in many cultures. Legumes are commonly used in: 

  • Desserts
  • Dips
  • Rice Dishes
  • Salads
  • Side Dishes
  • Soups
  • Stews

They mostly come in canned or dried forms which allow them to be available all year round. 

Depending on where you live, the most common beans are typically: 

  • Adzuki 
  • Black 
  • Black Eyed Peas
  • Chickpeas (Also known as Garbanzo)
  • Kidney 
  • Mung 
  • Navy 
  • Pinto 
  • Soy 
  • White 

The most common varieties of lentils are typically: 

  • Black Beluga Lentils (Also known as Black Lentils)
  • Brown Lentils
  • French Green Lentils
  • Green Lentils
  • Split Red Lentils

Why Eat Beans and Lentils?

They are:

  1. Nutritious.
  2. Inexpensive and shelf-stable
  3. Good for the environment. 

Beans and Lentils are Nutritious. 

For example, according to USDA data, one cup of cooked lentils (198 grams) contains:

Nutrition Composition

Typically, beans and lentils are low in fat, high in fiber, and high in proteins. They have a low glycemic index. They are also good sources of iron, folate, magnesium, and other micronutrients. 

Protein18 grams
Fiber16 grams (about 60% of the recommended daily intake)
Iron6.59 mg (about 36% of the recommended daily intake)
Magnesium36 mg (17% of the recommended daily intake)
Folate181 mcg (45% of the recommended daily intake)
Fat0.4 grams

In comparison, one cooked lean ground beef patty (77 grams, 15% fat) contains:

Protein19 grams
Fat12 grams (including 6 grams of saturated fat)
Iron2 mg (8% recommended daily intake)
Magnesium16 mg (3% recommended daily intake)
Folate6 mcg

Dietary intake of beans and lentils have been found to improve lipid profiles as well as other chronic disease risk factors. A number of studies have shown the inverse association between higher legumes intake and risk of cardiovascular diseases and coronary heart disease.

In addition, phytochemicals, saponins, and tannins found in these foods have antioxidant and anti-carcinogenic effects, giving them potential in cancer prevention

10 benefits of eating beans and lentils infographic

Resistant Starch

Depending on the variety, beans and lentils also contain 8-65% resistant starches. This resistant starch is the same type of starch that is present in green bananas and green banana flour

green bananas and green banana flour

Resistant starches resist digestions in the small intestine and ferments in the colon, acting as a prebiotic that nourishes the beneficial microbiota in your gut. The resistant starches in beans and lentils have also been found to have beneficial effects on blood sugar control, and even weight-loss

What about Anti-Nutrients?

Lately, there has been some bashing of plant-based foods, and legumes have been criticized for containing “antinutrients” such as lectin and phytates. Are legumes really harmful because of them? Here is everything you need to know.

What are Lectins?

Lectins are a type of protein found in raw beans, lentils, wheat germ, and certain vegetables.

In an active state, lectins can bind with carbohydrates and can interfere with minerals absorption, cause vomiting, diarrhea, and can cause damage in the intestinal mucosa. However, in small amounts, they actually have some health benefits such as immune regulation and anti-cancer properties.

For most people, it really comes down to reducing the toxicity instead of eliminating lectins in a whole.

Some people are very sensitive to lectins and may choose to avoid lectins as much as possible.

Adequate cooking can eliminate the toxicity from lectin in beans and lentils. For a safe intake, legumes need to be soaked and cooked at 100°C/212°F for at least 10 minutes. 

dried uncooked beans soaking in a bowl of water

What Are Phytates?

Phytates, or phytic acid, is a compound commonly found in the seeds of many plants is a form of phosphorous storage. 

Phytates can bind and form stable complexes with many mineral ions because of their negatively charged phosphate groups. Because of this, they can interfere absorption of many minerals in the diet.Studies have found that phytates intake can decrease absorption of zinc, iron and calcium. 

cooking lentils in a pan.

Several food preparation methods can reduce phytate levels in beans and lentils, such as soaking, cooking, fermentation, and sprouting.

Soaking and cooking combined are effective in removing phytates. This cooking method also increases the bioavailability of minerals in the legumes. So, by removing phytates and increasing the bioavailability of the minerals, combing soaking and cooking helps to increase mineral absorption. 

Also, these anti-nutrients interfere with absorption of nutrients eaten at the same meal. Even though a small amount of lectin or phytates may remain after preparation, they will likely not affect your overall nutrition as long as you space them out, and eat a balanced diet throughout the day. 

Final notes on antinutrients: Beans, lentils, and other foods containing lectin and phytates generally have good nutrition profiles. As long as prepared properly, the health benefits of these foods far outweigh the potential effect of lectins and are great addition to our diet.

Maximizing Nutrition with Food Pairing

Food Pairing is a strategy used to maximize enjoyment and nutrition at meals. 

Complementing Proteins

Beans and lentils are great sources of protein and can be a substitution for animal-based proteins. However, although they contain most of the essential amino acids, most of them lack methionine.

Therefore, it is best to pair beans and lentils with methionine containing foods such as corn, rice or other grains.

Examples of this include Beans & Rice dishes and Chili made with corn. 

red beans and rice recipe in a bowl

Maximizing Iron Absorption

Most beans and lentils also contain a good amount of iron. The form of iron in plant foods is non-heme iron. Compared to heme iron found in meat, non-heme iron is not as well absorbed and can be inhibited by certain compounds such as phytates.

To improve absorption of non-heme iron in legumes, try pairing them up with Vitamin C rich foods such as peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, citrus fruits, or pineapples, in the same meal.

Beans and Lentils are Inexpensive 

Next time you shop, take a look at the dried bean aisles in your grocery store. The last time I checked, a 2 pound bag of dried beans or lentils was priced between $2-3, depending on the variety (I live in Canada). 

Additionally, beans increase their size when cooked . One cup of dried beans can easily yield 3 cups of cooked beans. Meaning that a typical 2 pound bag of beans easily makes 8-12 meals.

In comparison, one pound of chicken costing the same money probably makes only 3-4 meals. Next time, when making soups or stews, try substituting some of the meat with beans or lentils. It will be less costly, higher in fiber, and will taste just as good.

dried white beans in a burlap bag and metal scoop

Beans and Lentils are Shelf-Stable

Beans and lentils are also shelf stable. Dried beans, canned beans, and lentils can be stored for a year or more in your cupboard. Even though hardly anyone gets stuck at home for that long, it’s still handy to stock some in case of emergencies such as quarantine. 

Beans and Lentils are Better for the Environment 

In general, meat production is an inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy. This means that it takes a lot more water, land, and resources to raise farm animals. Therefore, animal products have a larger carbon footprint and water footprint than crops such as legumes. 

Over the world, livestock produces 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This has a significant impact on climate change and global warming. Other steps involved the animal food supply chain, such as animal feeds, processing, transportation, and retail, also account for the high carbon footprint of meats.

green field with black and white cows

Simply changing 1 kilogram of beef to 1 kilogram of beans in your next month’s grocery order can reduce roughly 59 kilograms of greenhouse gas emission.

Plant-based foods are more efficient. They put less pressure on the environment from a freshwater resource preservation perspective.

Compared to beans and lentils, beef takes six times the water to get the same amount of protein and calories. Compared to beans and lentils, chicken and eggs takes almost twice the water to get the same amount of protein and calories. 

It is estimated that our need of water will exceed our supply by 2030. Waste from industrial processes and agriculture are causing serious pollution that threatens the ecosystem and poses risks to our health.

When choosing sustainable and environmental-friendly foods such as beans and lentils, you are making a choice that is both good for your health, and good for the environment. 

Can I be Allergic to Beans and Lentils?

Any food containing proteins can cause allergic reactions. Although beans and lentils are not common allergens in the US (except soybeans), some people still have allergic reactions or intolerances to these foods. 

Bean and Lentil Allergies

Symptoms of allergies to beans and lentil include:

  • Hives anywhere on the body
  • Tingling or itchy feeling in the mouth
  • Swelling in the face, mouth, or throat
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anaphylactic shock 
food allergy graphic with tomatoes, nuts, wheat, shellfish, beans strawberries

If you have identified any above symptoms eating beans or lentils, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from this kind in the future, and avoid packaged/prepared foods containing it in the ingredient lists.

Hidden Sources of Beans and Lentils

Usually, hummus contains chickpeas, falafel contains chickpea or fava beans, many Mexican foods, Indian foods, and some East Asian foods also contain different beans or lentils. Caution is advised with plant based protein powders.

Beans and Lentils Cross Reactivity

Cross-reactivity can happen among different legumes. For example, as peanut is also a kind of legume, some people with a peanut allergy may also have reaction to lentil, chickpea or lupine. However, most people with legume allergy react to only one or two specific kinds. 

If you are not sure whether you are allergic to any type of beans or lentils, consult an allergy specialist or immunologist. You can also consult a certified LEAP therapist if you think you may have sensitivities.

Intolerance to Beans and Lentils 

Beans and lentils contain Galacto-oligosaccharides(GOS), a type of non-digestible carbohydrate. They can cause intolerance in adults and children. If you have heard about FODMAPs, you might have seen this term in the “F” (fermentable) category. 

GOS move through the gut unabsorbed since the human body does not produce enzymes to break them down, and are fermented in the large intestines. For most people, they function as a prebiotic that provides nutrition to the gut microbiota. This process may produce gas.

However, for people with gut motility issues or hypersensitivity, such as in IBS, GOS can cause bloating, abdominal discomfort, and altered motility. 

food on a table with a fodmap sign

The good news is studies have found that the amount of GOS in beans and lentils is substantially reduced after soaking and draining soaking water. Cooking them further reduces GOS content.

A few studies has also found that pressure cooking and germination (sprouting) can also be helpful in reducing oligosaccharides in some kidney bean varieties.

Canned beans and lentils, after draining the liquids and rinsing, also have much lower amount of GOS compared to dry beans and lentils as they have been soaked and cooked during the canning process.

If you have found that beans and lentils give you gas or discomfort you can:

  • Try alternative cooking methods (soaking & draining, pressure cooking, germination)
  • Try a different legume
  • Try a small amount and build up tolerance over time.  

Depending on the bean variety and your gut sensitivity, you may be able to tolerate some legumes but not the others. 

Canned Vs. Dried

Both canned and dried beans/lentils are accessible, inexpensive and nutritious. There’s basically no difference in nutrition composition between the two kinds, except for the above mentioned GOS. Choosing canned or dried only depends on what you are looking for. 

canned white beans in a jar

If quick and convenient preparation is important to you, canned beans and lentils are your best.

Some of them are also pre-mixed or pre-seasoned, such as chili style beans, or three bean salads, which makes it even faster to use in meal-prep. If using pre-seasoned or canned products, be sure to read labels carefully for hidden ingredients.  

Dried beans and lentils, on the other hand, takes a bit more prep and takes some time to cook prior to serving. They are also more versatile and flexible as well. For example, you can control the amount of beans better, mix different beans together, or even sprout them!

Dried beans and lentils in glass jars also decorates your kitchen and gives it a warm, homey feel. Dried beans and lentils generally contain just a single ingredient and may be a better choice if you are following any type of elimination diet. 

Tips for Soaking and Cooking Beans

All beans need to be cooked before consumption to eliminate lectins and aid in digestion. Prior to cooking, soaking beans helps removing the above mentioned gas-causing GOS, and evenly softens the beans for a better cooking results. 

Dried Beans can be soaked and cooked according to three methods:

  • Traditional Cold Soaking Method
  • Quick Hot Soaking Method
  • Instant Pot / Pressure Cooker Method

Traditional Cold Soaking Method

  1. Always clean your beans to get rid of any small leaves, stones, twigs. You should also remove any broken or discolored bean pieces. 
  2. Rinse the beans under cold running water.
  3. Cover beans in cold water. If you want the beans to hold a better shape, add a little bit of salt into the water before you start soaking.
  4. Let the beans sit at room temperature. Larger beans such as chickpeas and kidney beans should sit for 8-12 hours. Smaller beans such as mung beans or adzuki beans will take less time, about 4-6 hours. Note: You can either soak beans in the morning before going to work and cook them in the evening for supper, or soak before going to bed and cook them in the morning, whichever works best for you. 
  5. Drain the water after soaking and rinse the beans to remove GOS.

After this step, you can simply add them to your simmering pot of soup or stews and cook until they are soft and ready to eat. 

If you’re making a recipe with cooked beans, such as hummus or black bean brownie, just add some fresh water to the beans, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 hour until it becomes soft and mash-able with a fork.

preparaed hummus in a white bowl with celery sticks

Quick (Hot) Soaking Method

This method comes from the Bean Institute and has never failed me when I wanted some chili for supper right after coming home from work!

  1. After cleaning and rinsing, add 3 cups of water to every cup of beans. 
  2. Bring them to a boil and continue to boil for an additional 2-3 minutes. Then remove the pot from heat, and let it sit with the lid on for 1 hour. 

Your beans should be ready for cooking after draining and rinsing with fresh water. With this method, you can enjoy the beans in 2 hours combining soaking and cooking time.

Instant Pot / Pressure Cooker Method

If you don’t care about GOS and don’t have time to soak, simply cover every cup of beans with 3-4 cups of water, salt and flavorings, and cook on “high” for 20-35 minutes.

The cooking time may differ depending on the amount of beans used. Larger beans takes longer to cook.

The water you use may alter cooking time as well. Higher mineral content in water can make beans harder to soften.

The model of your instant pot may also impact the cooking time, so adjust the time to make it work best for you.

The result should be fully cooked, slightly firm beans that hold their shape.

Another way to prep beans using an instant pot is to soak the beans in cold water with the traditional soaking method, and cook the beans with the same instructions above but change cooking time to 7-10 minutes depending on your bean size and your pot.

Bean Recipe Ideas

Bean Recipe Ideas

Here is a short list of different recipes you can make with beans soaked using any of the methods mentioned above.

Tips for Soaking and Cooking Lentils

Since they are smaller, most types of lentils don’t need to be soaked – especially if you’re making stews and soups. 

Split red lentils and brown lentils can be washed and added directly into the pot for cooking. They tend to have a mushier texture after cooking. Typically, they soften after 20-30 minutes of cooking and can turn mushy if cooked for longer.

Cold Soaking Method

For larger lentils, such as green lentils, soaking for 1-2 hours in cold water is probably enough to soften them. Harder lentils such as Beluga lentils may need to be soaked for longer or even overnight to reach a desired texture. 

You can also soak and drain smaller lentils if you need to remove the gas-causing GOS, but they can become very mushy if soaked for too long.

After soaking, they should be easily softened after cooking. These lentils normally takes around 30 minutes to cook, and tend to hold their shapes when cooked.

Instant Pot / Pressure Cooker Method

Different from beans, lentils don’t need to be pre-treated if you are using them in instant pot or pressure cooker recipes. Simply add washed lentils, other ingredients, and seasoning to your pot, and you can start the cooking.

Lentil Recipe Ideas 

Lentil Recipe Ideas

Here is a short list of different recipes you can make with dry lentils or lentils soaked using any of the methods mentioned above.

Final Thoughts

  • Did you learn more about this common yet powerful pantry item?
  • Are you going to eat beans and lentils more often?
  • What are your favorite ways to have them?

Share in the comments below!

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How to cook dried beans and lentils pinterest graphic with a glass jar of dried beans


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