Is Chili Good for You?
With a few tweaks, you can turn this classic comfort food into a highly nutritious bowl
Chili could be one of the world’s most user-friendly meals—and among the healthiest, too. There are dozens of recipe variations, so it can be easy to find something to please everyone. Making it from scratch requires little skill in the kitchen.
“Chili is a dish even the most inexperienced cook can handle,” says Amy Keating, RD, a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. Whether you do it in a slow cooker or a pot on the stove, it’s hard to go wrong. “Another bonus is that it freezes really well, so you can make a big batch and portion it into smaller containers for several lunches or dinners,” Keating says.
The dish’s true origin is an issue of debate, but Texans like to claim it as their own. In fact, chili (known in the Lone Star State as a “bowl of red”) is the official state dish. Chili purists will argue that “real” chili is ground meat (usually beef) flavored with chili pepper and other spices. More inclusive recipes add beans, tomatoes, and other vegetables—and even whole grains or tofu.
Whatever version you choose, you’ll be getting some nutritional benefits. But why settle for sort of healthy? With a few tweaks, you can turn any bowl of chili into a nutritional superstar. (Check out CR’s Easy Chili recipe, below.)
Spice It Up
Chili’s namesake ingredient—chili peppers—is what adds a flavorful kick to the dish. And the evidence suggests they may provide some significant health benefits. Researchers have found that capsaicin—the component that gives chili peppers their heat—has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer, and blood-glucose regulating effects.
Boost Antioxidants With Tomatoes
Most chili recipes include tomatoes—and there is good reason to add them even if a recipe doesn’t. Cooked tomatoes are among the best sources of the potent antioxidant lycopene (which also gives tomatoes their red color). Lycopene consumption has been linked to numerous health benefits—including reducing risk of prostate, colorectal, and other cancers, diabetes, heart disease, and memory loss.
Some research has found that cooking tomatoes can increase their lycopene content by up to 170 percent over eating them raw. “Cooking releases the lycopene from the flesh of the tomato, and the heat of cooking also changes the chemical shape of the lycopene,” says Xiang-Dong Wang, MD, director of the Nutrition and Cancer Biology Lab at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. “Those changes make it much easier for the body to absorb lycopene.”
And canned tomatoes are an example of a good-for-you processed food. As part of the canning process, the tomatoes are cooked, so whole, diced, crushed, or puréed canned tomatoes (as well as canned and jarred sauces) are packed with lycopene. But be sure to look at the Nutrition Facts label. “Some contain added salt, so it’s important to check the sodium content or choose no-salt-added varieties,” Keating says.
Bring On the Beans
Until 2012, you couldn’t enter a bean-containing recipe into the International Chili Society’s World Champion Chili Cook-Off. But for health purposes, you don’t want to skip them—whether you’re using them in place of or in addition to meat. Adding just 1 cup of beans to your recipe adds about 15 grams of protein, up to 15 grams of fiber, plus potassium, folate, and other nutrients.
Studies have shown that people who eat beans regularly have lower risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. According to a review of 28 studies published in the journal Advances in Nutrition, daily bean consumption resulted in about a 10 percent lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure compared with not eating them.
Eating beans may also help you control your weight, probably because of the fiber they contain. In a 2016 analysis of 21 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that people who ate about ¾ cup of beans a day lost about a pound over six weeks compared with those who didn’t eat them, even though they were not following a weight loss plan.
Add Extra Veggies
No matter what kind of chili you’re making, pack it with plenty of vegetables to up the antioxidant and fiber content of your dish. “Adding vegetables to your chili is a great way to increase the volume of food and the amount of nutrients without significantly increasing the calories,” says Su-Nui Escobar, RDN, adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She suggests tossing some shredded carrots, chopped bell peppers, or cubed sweet potatoes or winter squash into the pot. The sweetness of the veggies is a nice way to balance out the spiciness of the chili pepper.
Replace (at Least Some of) the Meat
Ground beef is probably the least healthy ingredient in a classic chili recipe. But even if you can’t bear the thought of chili without it, you can still cut some of its saturated fat and calories.
“Opt for beef that’s 90 percent lean instead of 70 percent lean, and you’ll get a similar taste with less fat,” Escobar says. The leaner variety has about 10 grams of total fat and 4 grams of saturated fat in 3½ ounces (uncooked), compared with 30 grams total and 12 grams saturated fat in the fattier beef. (You can reduce the fat content of any ground meat if you drain it after browning.)
Better yet, substitute a plant protein for all—or at least half—of the meat in your chili recipe. Many veggie options make surprisingly good stand-ins. Chopped portobello or shiitake mushrooms add a meaty texture that can substitute for ground meat, Escobar says. Tofu, jackfruit, or even whole grains can also work.
“Bulgur wheat is a good one to try,” Keating says. “The grains swell up when you cook them and add a slight chewy texture and body to the chili.” One cup of cooked bulgur provides 8 grams of fiber. A cup of tofu packs about 20 grams of protein. And a cup of jackfruit is a great source of antioxidants, plus important minerals like potassium and magnesium.
Rethink Your Sides
What you serve with your chili can add to—or detract from—its healthfulness. “Traditionally, people serve chili with or over white rice,” Keating says. “Mix it up and add more nutrition by swapping white rice for brown rice, quinoa, or whole-grain farro.”
For the topping, Escobar suggests skipping sour cream, which adds saturated fat that you may already be getting from the meat or cheese in your recipe.
“I use Greek yogurt mixed with all the same spices I put in the chili,” she says. You can also top your bowl with sliced avocado, chopped onion or scallions, and fresh herbs. If you like your chili with a tortilla on the side, opt for a fresh or baked (not deep-fried) version, and choose corn over flour. Corn tortillas have less than half the calories and fat of those made with white flour, plus they count as a whole grain.
CR's Easy Chili
In 1990, Consumer Reports published a recipe for chili that became a classic. (You can still find raves about it online today.) We recently gave it a nutritional upgrade, cutting back on the sodium and using leaner meat. The recipe hues to the basic formula of meat, tomatoes, spices, and beans, and we’ve included a meatless version to eliminate the saturated fat and increase the fiber. You can eat this chili right after it has cooked, but keep in mind that chili is often more flavorful on the second day, after the ingredients have a chance to blend overnight.
1 pound 90 percent lean ground beef
1 teaspoon minced garlic (about 1 clove)
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 large onion)
⅔ cup finely chopped green bell pepper (about 1 medium pepper)
4 tablespoons chili powder (or less if you prefer a milder chili)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon salt
1 28-ounce can no-salt-added crushed or diced tomatoes
1 16-ounce can low-sodium kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1. Cook beef, garlic onion, and green pepper in a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to break up the meat. Cook until the onion is soft and the meat has lost its pink color.
2. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat.
3. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 45 minutes.
Makes about 7 cups
Nutrition information per 1 cup: 250 calories, 7 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat, 29 grams carbs, 7 grams fiber, 8 grams sugars (0 grams added), 19 grams protein, 315 mg sodium
To make a meatless chili: Follow the basic recipe. Omit the beef. Use 1 tablespoon olive oil to sauté the garlic, onion, and pepper. Add one 16-ounce can of low-sodium chickpeas and one 16-ounce can of pinto beans, drained and rinsed.
Best Dutch Ovens From CR's Tests
A Dutch oven’s heft makes it perfect for simmering chili, soups, stews, and sauces. These three, listed alphabetically, got high marks in CR’s tests.