Is Chili Healthy? We Asked Experts To Weigh In.
Chili is one of many foods that has numerous iterations. When you think of the dish, you might picture a freshly cooked stew full of beans, vegetables, and meat, topped with a sprinkling of cheese and green onions. Or, you could envision a cafeteria scoop of preservative-laden, canned mush getting spread along the side of a ballpark hot dog. Because these two dishes are so disparate, it’s easy to be confused about whether or not chili is healthy. Let’s look at the ingredients in chili, and how wholesome they are.
Are the ingredients in chili healthy?
The sauce for chili begins with tomatoes. They can be fresh, jarred, or canned, and they’re healthful in each of those formats. “Tomatoes are an integral component to most chilis, and they come with many health benefits,” says Amy Davis, RD, LDN, founder of The Balanced Dietitian. “Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and lycopene, which gives the tomatoes their
red color. Also, lycopene content actually increases with cooking. Tomatoes have been shown to be preventative against heart disease and certain cancers, especially prostate cancer.”
You have plenty of bean choices for chili, with pinto, kidney, and black beans all being standard options in this dish. “Chili is a great way to enjoy the health benefits of pinto beans, which are high in protein, fiber, and folate,” says Amrie DeFrates, RD, founder of Amrie’s Homegrown. “Perhaps even more intriguing is their high content of the antioxidant kaempferol, which leads researchers to believe pinto beans may play a role in fighting cancer,” she adds. Choose one or several, as each has its unique benefits. Black beans are an excellent source of anthocyanins, the antioxidant that gives them their dark purple hue.
Grocery costs are at an all-time high, and the ability to purchase animal proteins ground can be a lifesaver for those looking to keep staple foods in their diet without busting their budgets over them. Ground beef, turkey, and chicken are both affordable options for chili. Even the most nutrient-dense game meats like bison and lamb, both of which make delicious chilis, cost less than their whole-cut counterparts. If you’re looking to cut back on meat quantity in your chili to save on money, you can add additional vegetables or beans without sacrificing the rich flavor that meat brings to the stew.
Chili powder mixes are some of the most healthful spice blends available, full of anti-inflammatory ground chile peppers, antioxidant-laden cumin, and sulfur-rich garlic and onions. While we think of chili as being spicy, chili powder blends are often quite mild, and even the mild versions have plenty of health benefits. Of course, spicier versions have added functionality due to an increased amount of capsaicin, which is known to improve metabolic health, especially in terms of weight loss.
Is vegetarian chili healthy?
In lieu of ground meat, vegetarian chili utilizes plant-based protein or sticks to just beans. However, just because it is plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthier choice compared to traditional chili that contains meat. “Both [types of chili] can be a great source of protein — from beef, turkey, lentils, or tempeh,” suggests Davis. “Both can offer plenty of fiber and antioxidants from veggies like tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and even sweet potatoes.”
You could choose a plant-based meat analog instead of lentils or tempeh, but be aware that those are typically highly processed foods with long ingredient lists. “Saturated fat is often lower in the vegetarian chili varieties,” says DeFrates, making it a good choice if your diet is otherwise high in that form of fat, which is known to increase the risk of heart disease.
Is carnivore chili healthy?
It’s all meat all the time with this style of chili. “Carnivore chili is typically higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates,” explains DeFrates.
As you might guess, keeping the protein of chili while removing most of the fiber isn’t as healthful an option. “Because carnivore foods typically only consist of meat and very little to no plant-based foods, the veggie option is most likely more balanced and a better source of certain nutrients, such as fiber and antioxidants,” Davis explains.
If you decide to try carnivore chili because you’re cutting carbs, consider serving it with cauliflower rice instead of standard white or brown rice. That way, you’ll still get some fiber added to the dish.
Is paleo chili healthy?
This version of chili eschews beans for root vegetables. “For someone who is intolerant to beans, a paleo option is likely better than a veggie or carnivore option,” explains Davis. “A paleo chili will likely offer a good source of protein, fat from meat, and also some healthy carbs from a variety of vegetables.”
If you’re a fan of tubers such as sweet potatoes, butternut squash, turnips, or parsnips, or if you’re wanting to put more of these healthy vegetables into your diet, dicing them into chili is a tasty and easy way to do that. Because they’re high in starch, they’ll be close to as filling as beans.
“For those who dislike beans or feel particularly sensitive to the gas-producing abilities of beans, a paleo chili is a nice option,” says DeFrates.
Is canned chili healthy?
If you don’t have time to make it yourself, there is still plenty to be gained from eating prepared chili. “Canned foods can play a significant role in food security for people who are low on funds and/or time,” notes DeFrates.
“I’d recommend looking for one that isn’t too high in saturated fat and sodium, contains some fiber, and has some veggies in the ingredient list,” recommends Davis. “Amy’s Chili is a good vegetarian option, and Tribali is great for those who want a heartier option.”
How to make a healthy homemade chili
With all the healthful ingredients that chili naturally contains, your choices for protein and toppings are the biggest factors in making chili a healthy main dish.
“Choose a 90% or more lean ground beef, ground turkey, ground chicken, or a plant-based protein such as lentil, beans, tofu, or tempeh,” advises Davis.
“Chili can be made in so many different ways, and yes, sometimes that means preparing it or topping it with ingredients that result in a high calorie, high fat, high sodium meal,” says DeFrates, who recommends enjoying toppings like sour cream and cheese mindfully, rather than skipping them completely.
The bottom line
We conclude that chili is, indeed, a healthy food. Chili is considered a balanced main dish with a good macronutrient profile with numerous ways to make it healthy. If you opt for higher fat toppings like sour cream and cheese, just be moderate with your portioning. And if you want to choose a canned option, check the ingredients list and the nutrition info to make sure you aren’t overdoing it on sodium and saturated fat.
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