Are Beans Vegetables? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

Are beans vegetables or do they fall into another category? Here's what a dietitian has to say.

Beans are tasty and highly nutritious, but it's not always clear how they are categorized. Are they a vegetable, protein or both? The answer to this question isn't straightforward and depends on what type of bean you're eating and how much. Confused? Don't be! Read on to find out more.

Are Beans A Vegetable?

In broad strokes, vegetables are defined as the edible portion of a plant. This can include leaves, stalks, roots, tubers, bulbs and flowers. Vegetables offer an array of vitamins and minerals as well as fiber but often lack significant amounts of dietary protein—unless of course, we're talking about beans.

Beans are a subgroup of vegetables, called legumes. Botanically, legumes are the fruits of the matured ovary of plants. Legumes have unique nutritional attributes, one of them being that many offer a sustainable source of dietary protein. This is helpful for the planet and for people such as vegetarians and vegans that depend on plant-based sources of protein.

Different Types of Legumes

Specifically, there are three main types of legumes:

  • Oilseed legumes: legumes with high-fat content, such as peanuts and soybeans
  • Fresh legumes: such as string (green) beans and green peas
  • Pulses: which are legumes' dried edible seeds. Examples of pulses include lentils, chickpeas, and the common dry beans like kidney beans, black beans and more.

Can I Count Beans as Vegetables or Protein?

According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, legumes, specifically beans, dried peas and lentils, are classified as vegetables. However, eating beans and lentils does not necessarily count toward your daily vegetable intake. Whether you count beans and legumes as a protein or a vegetable depends on the amount consumed. USDA MyPlate suggests counting beans and legumes as part of the protein group—with a few exceptions (more on that below). When you have met your recommended servings of protein and have any extra servings, these servings can be counted as vegetables.

groups of different beans
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Do All Legumes Offer The Same Benefits?

Legumes are a nutrient powerhouse. They are an excellent source of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, non-heme iron, zinc and potassium. Furthermore, they are also an excellent source of niacin and folate, two essential B vitamins for metabolism and development They are low in saturated fats, are a good source of mono and polyunsaturated fats and are high in fiber.

While all legumes offer health benefits, they fall into different subgroups according to their nutritional composition. Beans such as kidney beans, black beans, white beans and fava beans along with dried peas (like chickpeas) and lentils bridge the gap between the Protein Group and the Vegetable Group. (Edamame also falls into this category even though it is eaten fresh, not dried.) Fresh peas are considered part of the Starchy Vegetables group but in their dried form, they are also categorized under the Proteins Food Group in the Dietary Guidelines. String beans are in the "Other Vegetables" group because their nutritional profile is more like, well, other vegetables.

Nutritional Benefits of Legumes

Legumes offer numerous health benefits. They may help manage body weight and reduce the risk of clinical obesity and colorectal cancer. Legumes are also perfect for heart health—eating them regularly may decrease chronic inflammation, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Their benefits for heart health are also demonstrated in their inclusion in the Mediterranean diet and disease-specific diets, such as the DASH diet.

Legumes are also a low glycemic-index food—thanks to their fiber content—making them one of the ideal food choices for people with diabetes or high blood pressure, as they help to keep blood sugar levels stable. A 2020 review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition suggested that eating at least 150 grams of cooked legumes daily may help lower the risk of chronic diseases. (150 grams of cooked legumes is equal to 1 1/2 servings, or approximately 1 1/4 cup cooked beans or lentils.)

Bottom Line

The verdict is in: beans are technically a subgroup of vegetables, called legumes. But they also contain a significant amount of protein, which sets them apart from typical vegetables. But no matter how they are perceived, they are beneficial to a balanced diet. Browse our collection of healthy beans, peas and lentil recipes today to see how to incorporate them into your meals and snacks!

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