'Boring' Lentils Touted as Athletes' Super food -- Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Lentils Become a Superfood

Attention athletes -- prepare your palates and forget about pre-game pasta. Lentils are the next big thing for increasing endurance in sport.

DECEMBER 30, 2006

Attention athletes -- prepare your palates and forget about pre-game pasta. Lentils are the next big thing for increasing endurance in sport.

An ongoing study led by University of Saskatchewan kinesiology Prof. Phil Chilibeck is investigating the potential of lentils as a performance enhancer in sports such as soccer, rugby and hockey. If the study goes as expected, the researchers hope to market a lentil-based supplement in the form of an energy bar or cereal in the near future.

"When you eat plain lentils, it's kind of unpalatable and boring," Chilibeck said. "So what we're doing is finding out how they work, then we want to put them in some kind of energy meal."

Lentils have an ideal composition for endurance sports, Chilibeck said. Blood sugar is released slowly in the digestive process, fueling muscles for endurance exercise. They're also a good source of protein for athletes.

"Lentils provide a slow, sustained release when you're doing endurance sports," Chilibeck said. "That gives a constant supply of energy to your muscles."

The benefits of lentils may even outweigh pasta, which can be detrimental to athletes, triggering a rapid release of blood sugar and less sustainable energy, he said. The same is true of most energy bars, Chilibeck said. He thinks a lentil-based bar would provide a slower, more beneficial release of blood sugar in the body.

Chilibeck was told about the sport potential of lentils by U of S plant sciences Prof. Bert Vandenberg. A competitive soccer player and pulse crop expert, Vandenberg had noticed that consuming lentils before games boosted his energy while playing.

Chilibeck's curiosity was piqued, and with funding from the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, he assembled a team of graduate students and researchers to begin testing U of S soccer players.

The method of testing the effect of lentils on the soccer players was unique for kinesiology. While most endurance tests have athletes run at a single speed, Chilibeck's simulated a soccer game, varying the pace from walking to jogging to short sprinting.

The research team measured how the lentils were absorbed by the athletes, testing muscle biopsy, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Measurements were also taken and results compared after the soccer players ate potatoes, and after they did not consume any food.

"Lentils are not bad, but the form we have them in for the study is not the most tasty," said kinesiology graduate student Jon Little, who is in charge of testing and data collection for the project. "After eating potatoes you get a huge sugar rush and then a crash, where you feel kind of drowsy and tired and you are hungry two or three hours later. Lentils tend to stay with you for the whole day."

Early results suggest eating lentils two hours before a game gives athletes the optimal performance, Chilibeck said. The team is continuing to test lentils on more athletes throughout the winter and is hoping to team up with nutrition and agriculture researchers to dream up a product some time next term.

Chilibeck has been so impressed with the result he's also started to eat lentils before he works out or plays rugby.

"Since I've started doing the research, I've consumed more lentils as I've learned more about them," he said "Their nutrient profile is so good. People in other countries, for example India, consume lentils before doing a really heavy workday to help get through it, but they just aren't that big a part of the North American diet."

For athletes looking to work lentils into their everyday diet, nutrition graduate student and research team member Dawn Ciona said there are a variety of "tasty ways to prepare them," including in chocolate chip cookies.

"Lentils can easily be added to most meals and with very little preparation," she said. Ciona is researching people's attitudes toward lentils to help in marketing the eventual product.

The study could also be good news for Saskatchewan farmers, who are leading producers of lentils, Ciona said. Saskatchewan is a world leader in lentil production and export but domestic sales are relatively low, so a popular lentil bar or cereal could help strengthen the domestic market.

© (c) CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc.

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