Lentils vs Meat (Chicken/Beef): Protein and Nutrition

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Lentils are one of the best legumes when it comes to plant-based protein sources.

Additionally, it’s a natural substitute for meat like ground beef (in things like shepherd’s pie and rice dishes).

But while there are similarities, there are also some big differences in what you’re getting (nutritionally speaking) from lentils compared to meat.

I’ve gone over the main differences between lentils and popular types of meats (chicken, ground beef), so that you can get the answer to any questions you have. You can also see my vegan protein vs meat comparison for a more general comparison after.

Do Lentils Have As Much Protein As Meat?

lentils vs meat protein content

While it does depend on which cut of meat you’re looking at, in general, lentils only have about half as much protein as meat.

Lentils are good for a plant-based source of protein, there’s not too much of a comparison:

  • 1 cup lentils (230 calories) – 17.9 grams protein
  • 300 grams chicken breast (237 calories) – 50.4 grams protein
  • 150 grams ground beef (321 calories) – 39.9 grams protein

On a per calorie basis, most types of meat will have significantly more protein than lentils.

SUMMARY

While lentils are a decent protein source, it’s not surprising that chicken and ground beef have 2-3 times more protein per calorie.

Amino Acid Profiles of Lentils, Chicken, and Ground Beef

Because meat has so much more protein when we match serving sizes by calories, it makes sense to assume that it will also have more of each essential amino acid.

The data below confirms that guess:

  RDA RDA Lentils Chicken Breast Ground Beef (lean)
  mg per kg for 70 kg person 1 cup 300 grams 150 grams
Calories     230 237 321
Tryptophan (mg) 4 280 160 549 222
Threonine (mg) 15 1050 640 2,058 1,562
Isoleucine (mg) 20 1400 772 2,436 1,757
Leucine (mg) 39 2730 1,295 3,603 3,111
Lysine (mg) 30 2100 1247 4,005 3,317
Methionine (mg) 15 1050 152 1,311 1,041
Phenylalanine (mg) 25 1750 881 1,935 1,542
Valine (mg) 26 1820 887 2,418 1,958
Histidine (mg) 10 700 503 1,434 1,316

In one of our servings, each type of meat exceeded the recommended daily value for all essential amino acids (besides tryptophan for ground beef).

Considering it’s not rare to have more than one serving, the amino acid profile for either chicken or beef isn’t something you’d be worried about.

Lentils are a different story.

They still have a good amount of most amino acids. With just a few cups you’ll meet your daily value for most of them.

But like the amino acid profile for other legumeslentils are low in methionine. If you are vegan, you want to make sure that you’re getting methionine from other plant sources (doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same meal though).

SUMMARY

Most meats are complete proteins, meaning they have a solid amount of each essential amino acid. Legumes like lentils have a good profile, but are short on methionine, meaning that you wouldn’t want to solely rely on them for all your protein (although I’m not sure who would do that).

Lentils vs Meat: Which is Most Nutritious?

So, the protein isn’t really a comparison. Meat has more, and a better amino acid profile.

But nutritional value is a different story.

With the same serving sizes as above, I looked at the nutrients in each of the foods that were present in significant amounts.

Take a quick look at the data below:

  Lentils (%DV) Chicken Breast (%DV) Ground Beef (%DV)
Fiber 63% 0% 0%
Thiamin 22% 3% 3%
Niacin 10% 51% 39%
Vitamin B6 18% 24% 26%
Folate 90% 0% 1.5%
Vitamin B12 0% 3% 63%
Iron 37% 6% 24%
Magnesium 18% 6% 7.5%
Phosphorus 36% 18% 28.5%
Potassium 21% 6% 13.5%
Zinc 17% 6% 66%
Copper 25% 6% 6%
Manganese 49% 6% 1.5%
Selenium 8% 33% 46.5%

Lentils lead 9 of the 14 nutrients. While each meat source does have a decent amount of minerals, I still think it’s pretty clear that lentils are more well-rounded and nutritious.

I found the levels of zinc particularly interesting. The beef had the most by far, but lentils had much more than the chicken.

SUMMARY

Not surprisingly, lentils are much more nutritious overall than either chicken or beef.

Environmental Impact of Lentils and Meat

At this point, it’s pretty common knowledge that a vegan diet is much better for the environment, but I’ll quickly outline why here.

Our World in Data has a lot of great data around this topic. The chart below shows the greenhouse gas emissions for a variety of different products.

Meat is the worst offender by far (although some like poultry is 10x better than beef), while lentils would fall under “other pulses” (1.79 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents).

food footprints

Land use is a similar story where meat takes a lot more space to cultivate, even when you consider that factory farms stuff animals together in inhumane spaces.

land use per 100 grams of protein

SUMMARY

Overall, there’s not really a question that lentils are much better in terms of environmental impact than meat (although some meat like poultry is better than others).

Summary: Are Lentils or Meat Healthier?

So where does this leave us.

  • Meat has a lot more protein than lentils, but lentils still have a decent amount of protein (If you compare lentils vs black beans, lentils win that match up). It’s why vegan athletes typically base their diet on legumes like lentils and soybeans.
  • When it comes to nutrients, lentils have more overall nutritional value.
  • Lentils are much better for the environment than meat.

In addition, you need to consider other factors like saturated fat, which most meat has. It’s a controversial topic, but depending on where you land on it, that may push you towards saying that lentils are healthier. You’ll reach a similar conclusion when you look at comparisons like chickpeas vs chicken.

I’m not really trying to make a definitive conclusion about which is healthier, just to provide you with the nutritional data here in a clear way to help you plan your diet.

If you’re really looking for plant protein, you should see how seitan stacks up vs chicken, it’s pretty close.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.