Is Rice and Beans Healthy? Why This Classic Combo is So Nutritious

Love rice and beans, but can’t help wondering if it’s healthy? You’re not alone. 

Like many Latinos, I grew up eating rice and beans. And then when I moved out of my parents’ house and had to make my own meals, things got complicated. 

Rice and beans were the foundation of many vegetarian diets … so from that lens it seemed healthy. But it was hard to reconcile this with what I was hearing from the low-carb crowd, which suggested rice should be eliminated completely and beans should be looked at with suspicion. 

As I was getting my Masters degree in nutrition I started to see how traditional food combinations like rice and beans have been supporting people’s health for thousands of years. 

So yes, rice and beans is healthy. In fact, there are some unique nutrition benefits to this food combination! 

Want to learn more? Keep reading! We’ll talk about the health benefits of rice and beans, and discuss the importance of rice and beans for sustaining people worldwide. I’ll also share tips on how to get the most nutrition out of your rice and beans. 

So let’s jump in!

image of white rice with black beans. text reads is rice and beans healthy?

Health benefits of rice and beans

Rice and beans separately have their own nutrition benefits. 

Rice is an efficient way of providing energy. Fortified rice is common in the United States. This may explain why eating rice is associated with higher intake of folic acid and iron in the United States (1). 

And beans, of course, are a great source of fiber and lean plant-based protein. They’re also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. For a more complete look at the health benefits of beans, check out this blog post. 

But for today’s post, let’s focus on the health benefits we get when we combine rice and beans together. 

health benefits of rice and beans

Complete protein

Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that humans have to consume via food. 

When a protein has all 9 essential amino acids, it’s called a complete protein. Most animal proteins are complete proteins, while most plant proteins are not. 

All 9 essential amino acids can be found in the plant kingdom, just usually not all in the same plant. 

This means that vegetarians need to eat a variety of plant-based proteins to get all their essential amino acids. 

Enter the concept of complementary proteins. Complementary proteins are foods that provide all 9 essential amino acids together, but not separately. Rice and beans are complementary proteins. 

So when you eat rice and beans, you are getting all 9 essential amino acids, which you might not if you only ate one or the other*. 

(*Note: this doesn’t mean you have to eat them at the same time to get all 9 essential amino acids. More like on the same day. But there are other health benefits to eating rice and beans at the same time. More on that below.)

Improve blood sugar

It’s easy to think that because both rice and beans have carbs, that eating both of them would be bad for your blood sugar. But this isn’t true. 

Several studies have demonstrated that eating rice and beans together is better for your blood sugar than eating rice alone (2, 3). 

This means adding beans to your rice can be an effective way to include white rice in your diet while managing your blood sugar. 

Can help improve nutrition if you don’t like brown rice

In my experience, most of my clients know about the health benefits of whole grains like brown rice. 

But this doesn’t change the fact that most of my clients simply don’t like brown rice! If this is you, you’re not alone, and you’re not out of luck. 

While brown rice is a healthy food, the main thing about brown rice that makes it healthy is the increased amount of fiber, vitamins, and minerals when compared to white rice. 

Beans provide these same nutrition benefits. And, as we discussed above, adding beans can be an effective way to help lower your blood sugar response to white rice. 

If you don’t like brown rice or other whole grains, consider serving white rice with beans for similar health benefits. 

Tips for a healthy rice and beans meal:

By now you should feel confident that rice and beans is a healthy meal. But there are still some things you can do to get the most nutrition out of your rice and beans. 

Tips for healthy rice and beans meals: 

tips for a healthy rice and beans meal

Get the ratio right 

Try to aim for an equal amount of rice and beans, or slightly more beans than rice. 

One observational study found that people who ate 0.66 cups of beans for every 0.66 cups of white rice, had lower odds of Metabolic Syndrome and lower odds of high blood sugar, compared to people who had 0.33 cups of beans or less for every 0.66 cups of white rice (4).

A more recent study looked at the minimal effective dose of beans needed to improve blood sugar compared to rice alone. This study found a minimum serving size of ¼ cup of beans was needed to have a lower blood sugar response than ¼ cup of rice (5). 

In short, if you’re going to eat ½ cup of rice, try to eat at least ½ cup of beans well.

For mixed dishes like gallo pinto, congri, and arroz con gandules, you may want to experiment with the recipe to increase the proportion of beans to rice. 

Embrace recipes that add extra veggies and seasonings

Not every bean recipe has to have a lot of extra ingredients to be “authentic.” Frijoles de la olla are fairly simple, for example. 

But you can get some extra health benefits from bean recipes that use herbs, spices, and vegetables. 

Cooking beans with herbs and spices like onions, bay leaves, and coriander can increase the antioxidant activity of the bean dish (6). 

And eating meals that have been cooked with sofrito (like Cuban black beans) can decrease inflammation. For more information on the health benefits of sofrito, check out my blog post on this topic.

Choose whatever bean you like best 

People often want to know what the healthiest bean to eat with rice is. The truth is, there is minimal nutrition difference between different types of beans. Although different colors of beans have different antioxidants. 

The most important thing is to choose a bean that you enjoy eating, to help make the habit of eating beans easier. Then, try different varieties of beans for a wider range of flavors and antioxidant benefits. 

Try rice and beans for breakfast

Sometimes I have to remind my clients that you can eat rice and beans for breakfast! In fact, rice and beans is a popular breakfast combination in many parts of Latin America. 

Eating leftover rice and beans for breakfast is an easy way to reduce meal prep time. It’s also a great way to increase overall vegetable intake, since you can serve a breakfast rice and beans meal with avocado, salsa, and more. 

One study demonstrated that participants who ate beans for breakfast had a lower blood sugar response than participants who ate rice for breakfast. Unfortunately, this study did not look at the effects of rice and beans together (7). 


Hopefully now you can see why I’m such a super fan of rice and beans as a dietitian. 

For me, rice and beans is the ultimate comfort food. And on top of that, the specific combination of beans with rice provides some unique health benefits that you don’t necessarily get from these foods alone. 

Don’t you just love how our food traditions nourish us? 

That’s why I’ve built my nutrition resources just for Latinas. To help you eat healthy while celebrating and including your favorite Latino foods. 

Want to start eating healthy with lots of sabor? Check out my free 2-day Mexican meal plan!


1 thought on “Is Rice and Beans Healthy? Why This Classic Combo is So Nutritious”

  1. Krista!
    Great information about rice and beans, and the added benefits of eating them together.
    I was born in Costa Rica, of Costa Rican parents, but my mom and my non-Costa Rican dad moved to Massachusetts when I was 3 year old. So I always had rice and beans (Costa Rican style) for eating, though that dropped a bit when I got married to a young lady from Vermont(!). I am back, though, eating rice and beans, and your articles answers most of my health questions about that combination… Thank you!

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