Beans are an all-year food. It doesn't matter if you're in the dead of winter cradling some homemade chili or avoiding people by slamming baked beans and playing with a cat at your mother-in-law's summer cookout, beans are comforting.
So what happens when you're trying to shed some weight or tap into some of the health benefits associated with the keto diet? This highlights one of the biggest problems people face when going on the ketogenic diet: what can I still eat?
Most people know that being on the low carb, high-fat lifestyle means you must restrict sugars and processed carbs to fully benefit from keto, but specifics can get tricky. What about beans? They're a great source of protein and fiber, but can they fit into your keto lifestyle?
In this article, we'll talk about:
- What beans really are
- Whether or not you can eat beans on keto
- The nutritional content of common bean varieties
- Keto-friendly, low carb beans
- Low-carb bean alternatives
What Are Beans? Are They Actually Healthy?
Beans are just a type of plant seed, and people have been eating them for about as long as we've been cooking. From lima beans, to black beans, to green beans, it would be difficult to find people in the modern world who haven't eaten their fair share of beans.
They all contain good amounts of soluble fiber, carbohydrates, protein, folate, and iron, and due to their macronutrient content, many people believe that beans should have a place in anyone's diet. They're also extremely cheap and keep you full due to their high protein content.
Keto Diet Overview
The ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrates and prioritizes fats to transition your body into a state of "ketosis". Ketosis is when your body starts prioritizing fat as its fuel source. By kicking this survival mechanism into gear, you can break down fats quickly and increase the number of ketones in your bloodstream, which have been linked to increased energy in the brain[*].
Most diet experts recommend restricting your carbs to a level between 20g and 50g, but that number will vary depending on your body. The time it takes to officially get into ketosis also depends on factors such as how long it has been since you were last in ketosis and your level of restriction, but you should notice within a few weeks. Common signs of ketosis include short-term fatigue, increased focus, bad breath, and insomnia[*]. But don't worry! These tend to go away.
What do we mean by keto-friendly?
A food being "keto-approved" or "keto-safe" is a bit of a misnomer. Keto-friendly is more appropriate.
The only nutritional fact that strictly matters is a food's net carb amount. Net carbs are your total carbs minus any fibers. Fibers pass through your system and don't enter your bloodstream, which is why they aren't counted.
Therefore, you could theoretically eat any food as long as it doesn't push you past your net carb limit. The thing is, that carb limit is so low that it isn't reasonable to eat anything but low-carb foods.
Can You Eat Beans on Keto?
Most types of beans such as red kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans should be avoided on a standard ketogenic diet due to their high carbohydrate content. However, low-carb bean alternatives such as green beans can be enjoyed in moderation.
Additionally, those following a cyclical (CKD) or targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) may be able to incorporate higher carb beans into their diet during carb-up days (more on CKD and TKD below).
Beans are often looked at as a reliable source of meatless protein. They're cheap, used in tons of dishes, and there are enough varieties to please just about everyone, but what are the tangible pros and cons of eating beans?
Benefits you can get from eating beans
Beans are great sources of high protein and fiber across the board. Protein helps build muscle, control appetite, and is an essential macronutrient, and beans are also high in amino acids, which are what our bodies use to build proteins.
Apart from that, studies show that people who eat beans have a decreased risk of heart disease and cancer[*][*]. Some studies have also found a correlation between legume consumption and decreased risk of type II diabetes.
That's all great, but it's not all roses with beans. They also contain some questionable ingredients.
A few potential risks from eating beans
- Phytates. Beans store phosphorus as phytic acid. Phytates can interfere with your body's ability to absorb essential minerals such as iron, zinc, manganese, and calcium, although it's argued that the health benefits of healthy foods often outweigh any anti-nutrient detriments[*].
- Lectins. Found in high levels in beans, lectins function as a natural pesticide to protect plants from harmful organisms. Lectins can bind to your intestinal wall and exacerbate symptoms of leaky gut syndrome[*].
- Protease inhibitors. These are compounds that block your body's protein-digesting enzyme, protease. Over time, this can also increase the chances of leaky gut[*].
Note: The reason why people are so careful about soaking raw beans before cooking them is to reduce some of these harmful components. Cooking them correctly will help prevent you from consuming any of these harmful ingredients listed above.
Master list of common beans and their carb counts
Here's a list of common beans like pinto, black, and kidney, and their net carb counts[*]. This chart is entirely based on 1 cup of beans since that is a decent serving amount!
|Great Northern Beans||209||14.7g||24.9g||0.8g|
As you can see, apart from black soybeans and green beans, most bean varieties are super high in carbs, and that doesn't make them very friendly to ketoers.
Which beans are the most keto-friendly?
Beans containing the lowest amount of net carbs per serving include:
- Green beans. Green beans are one of the best keto-friendly beans available because a cup of green beans only has 5.8g in net carbs. Eat great beans tossed in salt, pepper, and lemon juice alongside grilled chicken for a low-carb, protein-packed meal.
- Black soybeans. Black soybeans are touted as the champion bean for ketoers, and while they still have lower carb counts then most other beans, they may not be as low-carb as commonly thought. Eden Foods Black Soybeans recently changed their label to 10g of net carbs per cup, which is substantially different from what the USDA reports (2g per cup). That varies by brand, too. If you apply the same USDA weight to Shiloh Farm's black soybeans, that amount goes up to 24.4g net carbs per cup. The bottom line? Black soybeans are probably more keto-friendly than most other types of beans, but as with all beans you should approach this one with caution and keep your portion sizes to a minimum.
Which beans are the least keto-friendly?
Beans containing the highest amount of net carbs per serving include:
- Baked Beans. Sorry backyard BBQs, but the ketoers will have to sit out on this classic cookout side. Baked beans are extremely high in carbs, with one cup having enough net carbs (37.9g) to knock most people out of keto.
- Chickpeas. Chickpeas weigh in at 32.5g of net carbs per cup, which is entirely too many to call keto-friendly. Fortunately, there are a variety of keto hummus alternatives that you can use to get your dip fix in.
- Pinto beans. Pinto beans are also a no-go on keto, so you'll have to forgo the chili for now. One cup of pinto cooked pinto beans has 29.4g of carbs!
- Red kidney beans. While these beans may contain a lot of protein, they are also packed with a lot of carbohydrates. Just one cup of red kidney beans contains a little over 29g of net carbohydrates.
- Cannellini (Navy) Beans. Navy beans have 28g net carbs per cup, so that's not going to work on keto. This, unfortunately, knocks a lot of bean-based soups out there, but there are plenty of other foods and keto snacks to eat!
A note about modified keto diets
The only time high-carb beans are acceptable on keto is if you are following a cyclical (CKD) or targeted ketogenic diet (TKD).
With these approaches, you're allowed to have some carbs during specific time periods to allow your body to restore its glycogen stores for optimized athletic performance and increased muscle building.
Consume beans on keto only if:
- You are following a cyclical ketogenic diet. This is when you have higher carb days one or two times out of the week. Athletes and people who want to build muscle can benefit from high-carb beans like black and pinto beans during their carb-ups.
- You choose the low-carb beans listed above. Low-carb beans can be consumed in small amounts during your standard ketogenic diet. If you are adamant about eating beans, try to time them around your workout so your body can burn through the extra carbs for energy.
Low-Carb Bean Alternatives
Many people like beans because of their texture and how complementary they can be for certain dishes. If you're someone who wants to substitute beans for a similar food source alternative, consider eating the following:
- Beanless refried beans. This dish requires zucchini, onion, chili powder, garlic, cumin powder, salt, black pepper, chia seeds, almond butter, oregano, apple cider vinegar, and beef tallow. It's a bean alternative and comes out to only 8g of carbs per serving!
- Enoki mushrooms. These mushrooms can be purchased fresh or canned and are a perfect side for salad or soup. One cup of enoki mushrooms contains only 3g of net carbs, which makes it perfect for the ketogenic diet. They're also highly nutrient-dense and contain vitamin B, magnesium, potassium, iron, and phosphorus.
- Peas. This cheap and delicious frozen aisle staple is great to keep around. With 14g of net carbs per cup, they aren't as low-carb as the previous two options, but they are a food you can eat in moderation.
The Bottom Line
Beans have been a staple in our world's diet since pretty much forever, but since many types of beans are high in carbohydrates, they are not considered the best option for ketoers.
Fortunately, there are a few low-carb beans and several low-carb bean alternatives you can incorporate into your keto diet if you don't want to give them up entirely.
Stick to the low-carb beans mentioned in this article (unless you're following TKD or CKD), and you should have no problem incorporating them into your ketogenic lifestyle!