If you're adding more protein to your diet but want to avoid eating too much red or processed meat, expand your food horizons and turn to plant-based sources of protein. Beans are one of the best high-protein foods and are also packed with vitamins and nutrients. Plus, they're low in fat and sodium.
Beans, part of the legume family, are excellent plant-based sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients. High-protein beans include black beans, chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans, among plenty of others.
Health Benefits of Beans
Beans are pod seeds from a flowering plant family known as Fabaceae, and are part of the legume family. Other types of legumes include lentils, peas, chickpeas and soybeans. Legumes are touted for their nutritional benefits; they're high in fiber, folate and manganese, and have very low levels of fat and sodium.
Beans are also one of the best high-protein foods. One cup of black beans, for example, is very high in fiber but also contains about 15 grams of protein.
In addition to their high levels of protein, beans contain phytochemical properties that work as antioxidants. According to an August 2015 study published in Nutrients, black beans showed an ability to reduce insulin concentrations in the body, which could help manage metabolic health and protect against the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Beans are also recommended by the American Heart Association as good dietary choices to lower cholesterol and aid in weight loss. That's why popular heart healthy diets, like DASH and the Mediterranean diet, emphasize increased consumption of legumes and beans. Because beans are low in fat and nearly devoid of saturated fat, they're excellent substitutes for less healthy options like white rice or pasta.
An October 2015 study published in Clinical Diabetes notes that legumes and beans have been linked to lower risks of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. That same study spells out that beans are filled with a diverse array of nutrition, including fiber, protein, healthy carbohydrates, B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, zinc and manganese.
Protein in Beans vs. Meat
Typically, people get their main sources of protein from animal-based foods, like red meats, poultry, fish and eggs. Meats contain complete amounts of the nine essential amino acids, which make them a more filling and protein-packed choice.
The nine essential amino acids, which include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine, are required for the body for a variety of processes. They help build muscle, grow skin and fuel organs.
Plant-based proteins often don't contain all nine essential amino acids in one punch. Beans, for example, are missing an amino acid known as methionine, according to the American Society for Nutrition. Other plant-based protein foods are often missing an essential amino acid known as lysine. Beans, however, contain lysine.
The short answer to this problem is to mix and match your plant-based sources so you're getting the full spectrum of amino acids your body needs to function. There are ways to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet and still receive all nine essential amino acids by combining beans with grains (so you get both methionine and lysine, as well as the other amino acids), or other variations.
In some ways, a plant-based protein diet can be better than an animal-based diet, according to UC Davis Integrative Medicine. If you're combining various plant foods to get all essential amino acids, and are eating high levels of the food, you can live off plant-based foods and still be receiving a full nutritional variety.
While beans may seem simple and bland, there's actually a huge variety of them — up to 40,000 different kinds. There are fava beans, runner beans, lima beans and common beans — which include kidney beans, black beans and green beans, among others.
Create a list of beans that you can add into your daily meals, whether you're making a protein-packed salad or using them as a side to dinner. Soybeans or edamame are the number one bean for a protein kick. According to the USDA, soybeans contain 31 grams of protein per cup. That means for each 200 calories of soybeans you consume, you're getting about 21 grams of protein. Roast or steam your soybeans (or green edamame) to add to salads.
Next on the list of beans are lentils, another popular bean that's common in South Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. One cup of lentils contain nearly 18 grams of protein, or 9 grams of protein per 100 grams of lentils. Lentils also contain plenty of polyphenols, micronutrients that may fight cardiovascular disease risk, according to Harvard Health.
Large white beans contain nearly as much protein as lentils, with 17 grams of protein per cup. You'll get about 14 grams of protein for each 200 calories you consume. Adding white beans to garlic mashed potatoes can help increase the protein level of this dish, while also lowering its fat and empty carbohydrate count. Add some white beans into a quinoa risotto to increase your fiber and protein intake, or add them into quesadillas.
Trying Different Beans and Recipes
Some of the more popular types of beans, like kidney beans and black beans, contain less protein than soybeans, lentils or white beans. However, they're still a good option: Kidney beans have 15 grams of protein per cup, and black beans contain around the same.
And don't forget about chickpeas — a common salad addition and base for the delicious Mediterranean and Middle Eastern side, hummus. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, have about 14 grams of protein per cup and also contain a good amount of folate or vitamin B9, as well as manganese and copper.
With such a diverse array of bean options, it may no longer seem as boring to experiment with replacing less healthy protein options (like processed meats or red meat) with beans. Beans are an excellent base for salads or bowls, like a cauliflower rice bowl with black beans, red peppers and avocado. You can even use beans as a meat substitute to make vegetarian or vegan meatballs and burgers.
Use chickpeas as a protein base instead of meat in fajitas or quesadillas, whip up a chickpea shakshuka or chickpea curry. There are so many creative meals you can make with beans, that you'll soon find getting your protein fix from foods other than meat can be easy and fun.
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutrition Facts for Black Beans"
- Nutrients: "Black Beans, Fiber, and Antioxidant Capacity Pilot Study: Examination of Whole Foods vs. Functional Components on Postprandial Metabolic, Oxidative Stress, and Inflammation in Adults with Metabolic Syndrome"
- American Heart Association: "The Benefits of Beans and Legumes"
- Clinical Diabetes: "Legumes: Health Benefits and Culinary Approaches to Increase Intake"
- MedlinePlus: "Amino Acids"
- American Society for Nutrition: "Protein Complementation"
- UC Davis Integrative Medicine: "The Essentials - Part One"
- MyFoodData.com: "Top 10 Beans and Legumes Highest in Protein"
- Harvard Health: "Legume of the Month: Lentils"