What Food Group are Beans: Protein? Carbs? Something Else?

When I’m cooking dinner for my family, I like to make sure I include something from all the major food groups: protein, carbs, fat, and of course a wide variety of vegetables. But I often hear people ask which food group beans belong in. Are they a protein, a carb, or something else entirely?

The truth is, beans (and other legumes) don’t really belong in just one food group. Because of their unique nutritional content, they could be considered to be either a protein, a carbohydrate, or a vegetable, depending on the criteria you use, and the composition of the rest of your diet.

Let’s take a closer look at the nutritional content of beans and other legumes, to see how they fit into a healthy diet.

What are the three macronutrients that our bodies need?

If you want to understand how beans fit into a healthy diet, you need to understand a bit about the main food groups.

There are three main macronutrients that our bodies need in large quantities. These should not be seriously restricted for any reason (e.g. weight loss), as they give us the energy we need to function. The three macronutrients are:

  • Protein: The amount of protein each person needs is affected by their weight and activity level. As a rough guide, the NHS recommends a daily goal of 50g of protein per person. Protein can be found in meat and fish, dairy products like cheese and yogurt, nuts, seeds, and (you guessed it) legumes like beans and lentils.
  • Carbohydrates: Carbs are the main fuel that our bodies use for energy. Carbohydrates can be found in bread, pasta, and sugary treats, but healthier choices include vegetables, whole grains, and (yep, yet again) legumes like beans and lentils.
  • Fat: Although fat is often demonised, it’s a vital macronutrient to provide energy for our bodies. However, ‘healthy’ fats (from ingredients like avocado, nuts, vegetable oils, and fatty fish) are better for us than saturated fat, which comes from sources such as dairy products, fatty meat, and baked goods.

As you can see, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways to get most of the important macronutrients. There’s nothing wrong with an otherwise healthy diet that includes small amounts of refined carbohydrates or saturated fat, but ideally, you’d opt for unrefined carbs and unsaturated fat.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Are beans a protein or a carbohydrate?

As mentioned, beans (and other legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils) are great sources of both protein and carbohydrates. So although it can be very tempting to want to place every single food ingredient into a neat box labelled ‘protein’, ‘carbohydrate’, ‘vegetable’, etc… It’s not really quite that simple.

If you really do feel the need to give your beans a label, to help you understand where they fit in your diet, it’s best to look at your diet as a whole.

For example:

  • If you eat lots of meat, and use baked beans as a side dish, it’s best to think of your beans as a vegetable or carbohydrate.
  • If you eat a vegan diet, with plenty of beans and lentils, you’ll probably think of them as forming the protein of your meal.

In reality, as long as you eat enough of the three main macronutrients that our bodies need to function, it doesn’t really matter what label you slap on each individual ingredient in your food.

What macronutrients do beans contain?

If you’d like to understand more about how beans can be categorised as either a protein, a carbohydrate, or a vegetable, let’s look more closely at the nutrients beans contain.

This table shows the nutritional content of one of the most popular types of beans, the red kidney bean. Different types of beans will have slightly differing amounts of nutrients, particularly micronutrients (see below!), but this data gives a general guide. And since a quantity is meaningless unless you know how many grams we’re supposed to be eating each day, I’ve also included the percentage of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for each nutrient.

NutrientQuantity (per 100g)% of RDA
Saturated fat0.1g0%
Source: USDA

As you can see, beans are a fantastic source of both the macronutrients protein and carbohydrate, as well as fibre, which is also hugely important for our bodies (particularly our digestive systems). You could quite reasonably consider beans and other legumes to be part of both the protein and carbohydrate food groups.

Micronutrients in beans

As well as two of the three main macronutrients, beans are also a great source of plenty of smaller micronutrients. These include various vitamins and minerals, and although our bodies need them in smaller quantities than the larger macronutrients, they’re just as important for the functioning of our bodies.

Beans contain plenty of micronutrients – here’s another table showing the nutrition content of kidney beans.

Micronutrient% of RDA
Vitamin C7%
Vitamin B620%
Source: USDA

Because beans contain such great quantities of various important vitamins and minerals, they can also be considered as part of the ‘vegetable’ food group.

In fact, beans can be counted as one of your ‘5 a day’. This is the UK government’s recommendation that everyone aims to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables each day for optimal health (even more is better!). It is recognised that beans offer a range of micronutrients that rivals plenty of other vegetables, so it’s completely reasonable to consider beans to belong to the vegetable food group too, even though legumes and vegetables are botanically different.

Where do beans fit in the food pyramid / MyPlate?

If you grew up in the 1990s or early noughties, you’ll probably remember the food pyramid. We were all taught to eat large quantities of grains and cereals, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and then smaller amounts of animal products (both dairy, and meat and fish), and to eat particularly fatty foods sparingly. When displayed as a graphic, this recommendation made a very satisfying pyramid.

However, I’ve only recently found out that the food pyramid was actually updated in 2005, and in 2011 it was done away with altogether (apparently I’m about a decade behind the times…).

These days, the USDA advises that we follow the MyPlate guide, which gives us an idea of how much of our diet should be comprised of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy.

Source: MyPlate.gov

The UK government offer a similar circular guide, known as the Eatwell guide, which shows the various food groups as proportions of our overall diets.

The UK’s Eatwell guide includes beans and other legumes under the ‘protein’ umbrella. The USA’s MyPlate guide includes pulses under both the ‘vegetable’ and ‘protein’ categories, recognising the unique nutrient composition of these foods.

If you need a little help making sure you’re eating the right balance, these divided plates on Amazon are designed around the official MyPlate guidance from the USDA:

So in conclusion, it’s up to you which category you’d like to use for the beans, lentils and chickpeas in your diet. They could be considered to be proteins, carbohydrates, or vegetables, depending on which criteria you’re using, and what the rest of your diet looks like. In all honesty, it doesn’t really matter what label you want to put on your beans – whatever you call them, they’re still hugely nutritious, delicious ingredients that deserve a starring role in any healthy diet.

Becca Heyes

Becca Heyes is a full-time writer, recipe developer, and bean eater. She spends most of her time writing for her vegetarian food blog, Easy Cheesy Vegetarian, and lives in the UK with her husband, two tiny children, and even tinier dog. She thoroughly enjoys eating excessive amounts of lentils as research for this website.

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