Despite the fact that the consumption of legumes is progressively increasing in Spain, the intake of these foods continues to be below the nutritional recommendations established by the health authorities. According to data from the IRI consultancy, in 2022 Spaniards spent 12% more than the previous year on legumes, although this figure is still far from the recommendations of three or four servings per week. The consumption of already cooked or prepared options stands out, which increased by 14.2%.
The Healthy Eating Plate developed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which is now considered the bible of good eating habits—replacing the classic food pyramid—recommends eating legumes regularly. These should be part of the 25% of healthy protein that is ingested daily, and that can also come from fish, poultry and nuts, to a lesser extent from red meat and cheese and in no case from cold cuts and processed meats.
The problem that many people have with legumes stems from the limitations when it comes to cooking them. Despite the fact that hummus has recently become fashionable, very present in restaurants, the truth is that in homes we do not usually go beyond the typical winter spoon dishes, so that in summer there are many homes in which it is reduced its consumption. It is a mistake, because both chickpeas and peas, broad beans or lentils have multiple gastronomic possibilities, as well as a high contribution of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals that are decisive for the proper functioning of the body.
Red lentils are a very complete food, as they are low in fat and sodium, a good source of iron and protein, and have minerals such as potassium, essential for the nervous system. The expert coach in healthy habits, Natàlia Calvet, ensures that red lentils are digested better than classic Castilian lentils and recommends always soaking them and washing them properly. “Lentils have what we know as antinutrients, present in some foods that hijack nutrient absorption, and draining or soaking them lowers their concentration,” she says.
The chef and pastry chef Marta Toledo, specialized in vegan cuisine and legumes and a collaborator of LegumeChef, also recommends soaking them "for at least one or two hours" and remembers that the reason why they digest better is that "they don't have the layer of skin that normal lentils do have, which makes them much more digestible and gives them other culinary possibilities”. The cook points out, however, that red lentils have less fiber than the others, although nutritionally they are quite similar. They are, therefore, a good option for those people who ingest lentils cause flatulence and heaviness, since having less fiber makes digestion easier and intestinal transit less cumbersome.
Red lentils, typical of Asian cuisine, require special care when cooking, much more than in the case of Castilian lentils. "We must take into account that, since they do not have skin, these lentils fall apart more easily than the others, so we have to be very rigorous with cooking: just by going a little too far they will end up overcooking and we will have a puree”, explains Toledo. Therefore, it is convenient not to neglect cooking for a moment, which must be shorter than that of traditional lentils. "While regular lentils take about 45 minutes to cook, red lentils are ready in about 15 to 20 minutes."
If we don't have time to soak and cook the lentils, a good option is to buy them already cooked, so that we can take advantage of all their nutritional benefits and prepare simple, nutritious and successful dishes in a short time and at a reasonable price. Although, as a rule, Toledo is in favor of buying natural lentils, soaking them and cooking them at home, she points out that occasionally they can be eaten already cooked, although many of those that we find in the market contain preservatives and salt. "In any case, they should be drained well under the tap so that they release the antinutrients," she says.
Red lentils work very well in all kinds of stews, beyond the classic spoon dishes we are used to. They are an excellent base for summer salads, since they can be combined with a large number of different ingredients to achieve a healthy and nutritious dish. The nutritionist Fátima Branco warns, however, that despite the fact that legumes are an excellent source of vegetable protein and iron, we should not trust obtaining this mineral only to these foods.
“The iron present in vegetables or legumes is more difficult to absorb, while the one found in products of animal origin is better absorbed. However, it is not necessary to abuse meat to ensure an iron intake, since many fish also contain it and some also have omega-3 fatty acids, which the body does not manufacture on its own”, he affirms.
The same thing happens with proteins, according to Toledo. "Although legumes in general and red lentils in particular are a good source of protein, this is not 100% complete like meat and other foods of animal origin, since it lacks an essential amino acid which is the meteonine. For the lentil protein to be complete, it needs to be supplemented with some cereal”, explains the chef from Legume Chef. For this reason, she recommends using these lentils as a base for salads accompanied by cereals such as quinoa and, for example, "some cooled baked vegetables", as well as "pickles or ferments, which help to digest better". If we also finish the dish with a vinaigrette that includes a squeeze of lemon, success will be assured, since citrus fruits combined with legumes increase iron absorption by up to 30%.
As for cooking, the chef recommends cutting it suddenly, after 15 minutes, to ensure that it is al dente and does not become a puree, which would spoil the dish.
There are a thousand ways to incorporate lentils into our usual dishes without even realizing it, which can be very interesting when it comes to guaranteeing the correct intake of protein that we often neglect. "You can add a handful to the gazpacho, previously cooked and cooled," explains Toledo, who recalls that in this case nothing happens if they have been overcooked a bit. The nutritionist Marta Moreno, from Nutrición Clinic, has the same opinion: "It is important to keep in mind that lentils are very easy to reuse, since if we have leftovers or even if they have gone slightly overboard, they can always be used to make a puree."
The nutritionist also recalls that eating legumes as part of a healthy and balanced diet is not only good for your health, but also for your pocket. "Eating healthier makes the shopping cart cheaper, since it means saving on superfluous products and foods with a high energy density that are nutritionally very poor. It is about betting on seasonal fruits and vegetables, which are also the cheaper, and in other foods rich in fiber such as legumes, which will also make us feel full for longer and spend less on snacks, ”he says.
Toledo, for his part, recommends daring with lentil hummus, less frequent than chickpea but equally delicious and nutritious, which feels so good in summer combined with crudités. It is also interesting to prepare all kinds of cold, fresh and perfect soups when the temperatures rise, and accompany them with a handful of lentils “to guarantee the correct protein intake”.
Another good way to incorporate lentils into the most diverse recipes is to make flour. “You can buy it ready-made, but it's really as easy as mashing lentils into a very fine powder. From here, the flour can be used for the most diverse recipes. In focaccia, a part of the conventional wheat flour can be replaced by lentil flour, the same as in crepes," says Toledo, who recalls that it is important to substitute only a portion, since lentil flour is gluten-free and, therefore, it acts in another way. An exception are pancakes, which can be made entirely with lentil flour, which will result in a nutritious breakfast, rich in protein and fiber and low in fat, perfect to start the day. "If the pancake with exclusively lentil flour is too heavy for us, we can always mix it with oatmeal and make half and half," concludes Toledo.