One significant change you may have to make on Keto is cutting out your favorite bean and legume dishes - like red beans and rice, lentil soup, refried beans, and falafel.
However, some low-carb legume options (and alternatives) make it possible to stick to your Keto or low carb diet while still enjoying some of your favorite dishes.
Here’s what you need to know about the benefits and downsides of legumes and how you may incorporate them into your Keto diet.
What are legumes?
Beans are probably your first thought when you hear the term ‘legumes,’ but it’s a pretty broad category that includes all of the edible plant fruits and seeds in the Fabaceae family. Here are some of the most commonly eaten legumes:
- Beans: Beans, including navy beans, white beans, red beans, pinto beans, black beans, and others, are the most well-known legumes.
- Soybeans: Soybeans are protein-rich legumes, and they’re used to make a variety of plant-based meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh.
- Peas: Peas are sometimes categorized as a vegetable, but they’re actually a type of legume.
- Chickpeas: Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are used to make hummus and are heavily featured in Mediterranean and Indian cuisine.
- Peanuts: Although they’re normally grouped with tree nuts like almonds or macadamia nuts, peanuts are actually legumes.
- Lentils: Lentils are small, bead-like legumes that come in various colors. Because of their size, they cook more quickly than other legumes.
- Others: Surprisingly, carob (which is sometimes used as a chocolate substitute), tamarind (a tangy flavor-enhancing ingredient used around the world), and both alfalfa and clover (edible to humans but mostly used as feed for cattle) are all legumes.
Potential health benefits of legumes
Legumes are generally considered to be a healthy plant-based food source. Here are some of the key benefits of legumes:
- Plant-based protein: Most legumes are high in protein, which is fairly uncommon for plant-based foods. This makes legumes a vital protein source for people following vegetarian or vegan diets.[*]
- Rich in fiber: Legumes are also full of fiber, offering several potential digestive benefits. Fiber may also help feed your healthy gut bacteria. These bacteria play a role in blood sugar management, weight control, immune health, brain function, and more.[*][*]
- Nutritious: Legumes are also full of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.[*]
- Inexpensive: Finally, one of the major draws of legumes is that they provide all of these things while being extremely inexpensive. Dried or canned beans, for example, are one of the least expensive protein sources you can buy.
Potential downsides of legumes
However, legumes have some potential downsides too. They are easily fermented by the gut bacteria in your large intestine, which — in some people — can cause excessive gas or digestive discomfort.[*]
On a related note, legumes can be difficult to digest and may need to be avoided by people with digestive problems. They contain plant-based antinutrient compounds like phytates and lectins, which can prevent your body from absorbing some crucial nutrients and may even damage the digestive tract.[*][*]
And with a few exceptions (like peanuts), many legumes are high in carbs and not entirely appropriate for a strict Keto diet.
Legumes and low carb diets
Even though legumes are high in carbs, you may be wondering if any are allowed on Keto. Fortunately, there are some ways to enjoy these foods and still meet your goals. Here are several strategies to help you incorporate legumes into your low carb or Keto diet:
- Try cyclical Keto. Cyclical Keto is a modified Keto diet that’s often adopted by athletes or other highly active people. On cyclical Keto, you have high-carb days when you work out and low-carb days when you rest. The high-carb days present an excellent opportunity to enjoy some legumes.
- Be extra careful with portion sizes. Portion sizes for most legumes are half a cup cooked. If you’re having some legumes on Keto, it’s important to measure the amount you’re eating so you can log your carb intake accurately. Use the Carb Manager app to help you keep an eye on your macros.
- Avoid baked beans. Whether you’re on Keto or a more flexible low-carb eating pattern, it’s a good idea to avoid baked beans. Although you’re more than welcome to bake your beans, the dish “baked beans” refers to beans that contain added syrup or molasses and sometimes ketchup — which are all high in carbs from sugar.
- Stick to low carb legumes. Finally, to successfully include legumes in your Keto diet, choose the lowest carb options. We’ve assembled a list of the best Keto-friendly and low-carb legumes just below.
Best Keto-friendly legumes
Net carbs: 3 grams per ¼ cup serving
Peanuts and peanut butter are low enough in carbs for strict Keto diets, as long as you’re careful with your portion sizes and opt for natural butters free from added sugars. Better still, make your own.
Net carbs: 3 grams per ⅓ cup serving
Roasted soybeans are a decent, protein-rich, low carb snack. And if you’re doing a plant-based low carb diet, you may want to include non-GMO soy protein products (like tofu) in your diet.
Net carbs: 5 grams per ½ cup serving
Black soybeans are extremely high in fiber, and they’re an excellent alternative to higher-carb beans in chilis and soups. They don’t get quite as tender as beans, but they are otherwise a spot-on replacement.
Net carbs: 10 grams per ½ cup serving
Peas are another excellent protein source for vegans, and they’re fairly low in carbs. If a winter craving for split pea and ham soup strikes, then you could easily work a serving or two into a low carb or Keto diet.
Net carbs: 1 gram per ½ cup serving
Lupini beans, sometimes referred to as Lupin beans, are a regular part of traditional Mediterranean cuisine. These beans contain a whopping 11 grams of fiber per serving - bringing their net carb count down to just 1 gram. Lupini beans can be used in place of any other bean or legume in recipes, and lupin flour is a popular Keto baking staple.
Net carbs: 13 grams per ½ cup serving
Chickpeas can be eaten as a main protein source, side dish, or used to make hummus or falafel. Hummus — which often contains Keto-friendly olive oil and sesame seed paste — may be a low-carb dip option in small quantities depending on the brand or ingredients you use to make it at home.
Net carbs: 13 grams per ½ cup serving
Black beans are a really versatile bean that can be used to make traditional bean dishes, but you can also use them to make black bean hummus and black bean burgers. They are one of the lowest carb beans you can eat.
Net carbs: 14 grams per ½ cup serving
Lentils are really tiny, so a ½ cup of lentils may feel like a little bit more food than a ½ cup of beans (for the same amount of carbs) — if you’re looking to maximize your low carb legume meal. They can also be used in place of beans in nearly any recipe.
Net carbs: 14 grams per ½ cup serving
Kidney beans are a favorite for dishes like chili and red beans and rice. Once cooked, they can adopt a very creamy texture. They’re also one of the best bean choices for low-carb diets.
Net carbs: 15 grams per ½ cup serving
Pinto beans are commonly used in Mexican food to make charro beans or refried beans. Pinto beans can be substituted for kidney beans in many recipes without a huge change in the taste or appearance of the dish.
Great Northern beans
Net carbs: 16 grams per ½ cup serving
Great Northern beans are a white bean variety that is great for making white chicken chili or ham and beans. They can easily be part of a more flexible low-carb diet.
Best Keto-friendly legume alternatives
If you want to keep your carbs strictly Keto, you may need some swaps for your favorite legume recipes. Here are a few that we’ve tried:
- Ground meat: For a zero-carb alternative that’s still full of filling protein and fat, substitute beans for ground beef, pork, turkey, or chicken — or even ground or diced sausage for some extra flavor. This works particularly well for recipes like chili.
- Eggplant: Diced eggplant will absorb the flavors it’s cooked with and add an additional textural component to some dishes. It can also be used to make a Mediterranean dip called baba ganoush, which is a good lower-carb alternative to hummus.
- Mushrooms: Mushrooms, like eggplants, take on the flavor of whatever they’re cooked in and add a little bit of chew to recipes. The only drawback of these veggie alts is that — unlike legumes — they don’t provide significant amounts of protein.
Legumes include not only beans and lentils, but soybeans, chickpeas, peas, and peanuts, too. While they’re rich in protein and fiber, they may also cause digestive issues in some people — and many of them are too high in carbs to be appropriate for a strict Keto diet.
However, if you’re following cyclical Keto or a low carb eating pattern, there are a variety of legumes you can include. Additionally, some of the best Keto-friendly legume options include peanuts and black soybeans.