What you should know about the nutrition in this simple dish. Rice and beans, a classic comfort food combo in Latino and Caribbean communities and some parts of the American South, is one of the healthiest dishes you can eat. It's rich in plant protein—12 grams per cup—and it provides nutrients that most Americans don’t get enough of.
Top among them is fiber. One cup of white rice and beans has 10 grams of fiber, mostly supplied by the beans. Compare that with a cup of chicken and rice, which has less than 1 gram.
“A diet that’s high in fiber helps regulate blood sugar and prevent certain types of cancer,” says Michelle Schelske-Santos, Ph.D., a professor in the nutrition and dietetics program at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. The kind of fiber in beans also helps us develop good bacteria that contribute to gut health, she says.
Recommendations for daily fiber are 25 grams for women and 31 grams for men. But most people get far less than that, even those who are from cultures where rice and beans are a staple. A transition from fiber-rich culinary traditions to fast foods may be one reason for the high incidence of type 2 diabetes in Hispanic communities, Schelske-Santos says. While 40 percent of adults in the U.S. are expected to develop the disease, that number rises to more than 50 percent for Hispanics, and they're about 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorful beans—such as black, red kidney, pinto, or black-eyed peas (the types most commonly cooked with rice)—are also packed with antioxidants. These compounds protect against the kind of cell damage that may lead to heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. And beans do double duty as a protein and a vegetable, counting toward the 2 to 3 cups of vegetables you should have in a day.
If you need more evidence about the benefits of beans, consider this: In 2016 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition analyzed 21 studies, finding that people who ate about ¾ cup of beans per day lost a modest amount of weight (nearly a pound over six weeks) even when they didn’t cut the overall number of calories.
As for the rice side of the equation, white rice, the type usually served with beans, is often enriched with some B vitamins. It also has some iron and about 2 grams of protein per half-cup cooked. White rice on its own is made up of fast-digesting carbohydrates, leading to spikes in blood glucose levels. But when you pair it with beans, it helps you metabolize the carbs better.
And for the protein in rice and beans, it's true that combined they make complete protein, supplying all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) found in dairy, meat, poultry, and fish. But you don’t have to eat them together for the protein to count. By eating a variety of foods throughout the day, you get all the amino acids you need, and your body does the combining for you.
Making the Dish Even Healthier
Despite the healthfulness of the combo, there are ways you can make rice and beans even better. Try these tips:
Tweak traditional recipes. The beans are often cooked with ham hocks, bacon, or lard, which add flavor but also a lot of fat and sodium. Artificial ham-flavored seasoning is often used as a substitute for pork, but it’s packed with sodium.
But rice and beans can be tasty without the pork. Seasoning the beans well is the key. Increase the flavor by sautéing garlic, onion, and green peppers in olive oil until golden before adding cooked beans. Add in spices; paprika, oregano, coriander, and cumin are spices that pair well with beans. Any good-quality blend without MSG—Italian, Caribbean, Taco—also goes well. If you like spicy food, add chili powder to your beans. And adding fresh herbs at the end gives great freshness to the dish.
Bump up the beans. The usual ratio is about half beans, half white rice. “But for a more nutritious combination, you should try two-thirds beans and one-third rice,” says Isabella Ferrari, MCN, R.D., L.D., a clinical dietitian at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.
Dry beans are typically about one-third the price of canned beans, but some people find cooking with them intimidating. But they can actually be very easy to use, says Schelske-Santos. “I put the beans in a slow cooker in the morning before going to work, and when I get back I prepare the seasoning [sautéed garlic, onions and peppers with spices] and mix in the beans," she says.
If you use canned beans, rinse them in a colander before cooking them. Canned beans can be high in sodium, but rinsing reduces it by about 40 percent.
Choose the right rice. Rice can be a source of arsenic, and regular exposure to small amounts of this heavy metal can increase the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Consumer Reports’ tests have found that white rices from California, India, and Pakistan have about half the amount of arsenic that most other types do. Brown rice will give you about five times the fiber but also has more arsenic than white rice from the same area. You can further reduce the arsenic content of any type of rice by 40 to 60 percent by cooking it in a large amount of water, the way you would pasta.
Swap in other whole grains. At least half of the grains you eat in a day should be whole grains. But a recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey report found that whole grains contribute just 16 percent of the grains American adults eat daily. For Hispanic and African American adults, the percentage is even less—11 and 14 percent, respectively. In place of white or brown rice, try other whole grains. “Barley, wheat berries, and farro combine very well with beans,” says Jason Ziobrowski, corporate chef at InHarvest, a provider of rice, grains, and legumes to restaurants, caterers, and culinary institutions. “They are toothy and bring texture to the mix.” Quinoa also works well, especially in combination with rice. Mix it half and half with rice to boost the protein and fiber content. One cup of cooked quinoa has about 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.
You can also make rice and beans healthier by including other vegetables in the dish. “Carrots, onions, and red peppers mix in well with the beans, and they give it a bit of color,” says Ferrari.
To save time, prepare the whole grains and beans on weekends, and store them separately in serving-sized containers in your refrigerator. Most cooked grains and beans also freeze well. When you’re ready to eat, season the beans and combine with the grains.
Slow cookers and multi-cookers can make cooking beans from scratch easy.