Small but mighty: Lentils are the easiest legume

Lentils may not look like much, but these tiny, disc-shaped legumes are rich in protein, fiber, magnesium and vitamins C and B (including folate). They’re also an excellent plant source of iron, making them an especially great choice for vegetarians and vegans.

Even if you’re not a vegetarian, lentils have unique nutritional benefits that make them an excellent addition to any diet.

For example, lentils have some of the highest antioxidant activity among legumes, and they can do all kinds of good things for your heart: According to well-established studies, lentils can help reduce high blood pressure, improve the health of your arteries and help lower your homocysteine levels (a risk factor for heart disease). Plus, the fiber in lentils can help lower cholesterol while keeping your blood sugar nice and even. That’s good news if you have diabetes or are insulin resistant.

Last but definitely not least, lentils are a rich source of inositol and choline—cofactors that help your body burn fat as fuel instead of storing it.

Shopping for lentils

Lentils come in black, brown, green, yellow, orange and red; green and brown are the most common colors you’ll find in the United States. Look for packages or bulk bins with whole lentils. If the lentils are broken and dusty looking they’ve probably been there a while—and the longer they’ve sat, the longer they’ll take to cook.

Cooking lentils

Cooking lentils is a lot like cooking any other legume—the first thing you do is sort through them to remove any stones and other debris (just spread them out on a cookie sheet or shallow pan and take out anything that looks funny), then give them a good rinse.

The really great thing about lentils is that unlike other legumes they don’t require pre-soaking, and they cook up super fast (for a legume, anyway)—just 20 to 45 minutes if you’re boiling them or longer in your slow cooker.

Color does make a difference: Red lentils cook fastest, but tend to get mushy; green lentils take longer to cook but hold their shape very well, and brown lentils fall somewhere in between.

You can add cooked, seasoned lentils to your salads for protein, or make them into an easy, tasty soup: Mix the cooked lentils with a phase-appropriate broth and veggies, plus savory onions and garlic. Add herbs and spices—try bay leaf, oregano, thyme and black pepper—and you’re good to go. If you like basil, it usually goes well with lentil soup too.

And check out this recipe for lentil shepherd’s pie — delicious and filling.

Tiny legume, tiny downside

The only real downside to lentils is that they contain relatively concentrated levels of purines—a chemical compound, usually present in high-protein foods, that your body breaks down into uric acid. That’s really only an issue if you’re at high risk for gout and your doctor has told you to stick to a low-purine diet.