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Eating Lentils Daily Could Lower Cholesterol

Lentils may be tiny, but they’re well-known for packing a nutritional punch. That’s why researchers have become increasingly interested in studying what happens when people eat them regularly.

The latest study into lentils suggests that they may have health benefits for people at high risk for metabolic disease—defined by the authors as having a larger waist circumference and high levels of post-meal triglycerides.

The research, published in the journal Nutrients, specifically found a link between eating lentils daily for 12 weeks and lower LDL (“bad”) and total cholesterol, post-meal blood sugar levels, and measures of inflammation in this population. 

High levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation can play a key role in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. 

“This information further informs the development of pulse-based dietary strategies to lower disease risk and to slow or reverse metabolic disease progression in at-risk populations,” the authors wrote.

Pulses refer to lentils and other edible dried legume seeds, such as kidney beans, dry peas, and chickpeas.

Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a gastroenterologist and the United States medical director of ZOE, told Health that the study was limited in that it included only 38 people, and all participants were at high risk for metabolic disease. However, the findings align with previous research looking at similar measures, he added.

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While other studies have investigated the health effects of lentil consumption, the researchers noted that few studies have focused on how lentils impact broad measures of metabolic health. Studies testing the consequences of making lentils a large component of a diet have also been scarce.

To fill in the knowledge gap, scientists designed a 12-week trial comparing the impact of lentil-based and meat-based meals on metabolic outcomes.

Researchers instructed half of the participants to eat seven prepared midday meals containing about a three-quarter cup of lentils, an amount exceeding the United States Department of Agriculture’s recommended weekly 1.5 cups of cooked pulses for adults who consume 2,000 daily calories. The rest of the participants ate similar meals with turkey or chicken instead of lentils.  

Participants also received blood tests and completed surveys about their eating habits and health statuses.

In addition to finding that lentil-eaters had lower metabolic health markers, the team also discovered that the lentil-eating group didn’t appear to have more severe gastrointestinal issues; participants in both groups reported either no or mild symptoms. 

“Our results suggest that daily lentil consumption may be helpful in lowering cholesterol and postprandial glycemic and inflammatory responses without causing GI stress,” the authors wrote. 

However, Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT, an Indiana-based registered dietitian and owner of One Pot Wellness, pointed out that the connection between lentil consumption and improved metabolic markers could have also been due to the lower sodium and processed carbohydrate content in the prepared meals. “The changes in postprandial and triglyceride markers may be reflective of the compositional changes of the meal,” she said.

There are a few reasons why lentils may improve metabolic health.

“With regard to blood sugar control,” Bulsiewicz explained, “fermentable fiber interacts with our gut microbes to produce short-chain fatty acids like propionate that help improve insulin sensitivity. Simultaneously, dietary fiber slows the absorption of sugar in our diet.”

That’s why “the person who had lentils for lunch will continue to have better blood sugar control at dinner,” he said.

The protein and resistant starch in lentils have a similar effect on blood sugar, according to Kelly Jones MS, RD, a performance dietitian for pro athletes and active families.

As for cholesterol, soluble fiber has been shown to lower levels “by limiting the absorption of cholesterol and helping us to eliminate it as a part of a bowel movement,” Bulsiewicz said.

Lentils are also a rich source of saponins, bioactive compounds linked to lower cholesterol levels.

Their ability to reduce inflammation, according to Jones, could be due to polyphenols, plant compounds known for their anti-inflammatory effects.

Given their high nutritional content, you may be itching to incorporate lentils into your diet. The good news is that they’re a versatile ingredient that can make a delicious addition to soups, stews, pastas, salads, and more. If you’re looking for a tasty snack, you can also blend them into a hummus-like dip and pair them with pita bread or your favorite chips.

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