Whether served in a casserole, in almond or roasted with garlic, green beans are sure to make an appearance on many a table this holiday season.
And unlike many of the tempting treats that make up holiday meals, the green bean is one item not usually served with a guilt trip. In fact, it might just be the Mighty Mouse of the holiday meal—here to save the day from a beckoning glut of high-fat, high-calorie foods.
“If you don’t prepare them with high-calorie ingredients, you can eat a large volume of them and feel fuller without consuming too much,” says Maya Vadiveloo, an associate professor in the department of nutrition and food services at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. .
There’s little the mighty green bean can’t do.
Not only are they relatively inexpensive, green beans are also rich in vitamin C and beta-carotene, an antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables their color. The vegetable helps fight inflammation and is a good source of folate and potassium, which help regulate blood pressure. Green beans are also a good source of protein and fiber, which help lower cholesterol, Vadiveloo said.
“Fiber is underconsumed by American adults and children, and it’s good for gut health,” she said. “(Fiber) is great for reducing the risk of colon cancer.”
But whether the green bean delivers its health benefits without also causing harm depends on how the vegetable is prepared, Vadiveloo said.
Cooking the beans removes a lot of nutrients — and a lot of flavor, she said.
Vadiveloo recommends cooking them in a heart-healthy oil, such as olive oil, or a non-tropical vegetable oil, rather than low-fat. If you are making a casserole, heavy creams or creamy soups can be replaced with Greek yogurt or low-fat milk. For those who want a little cheese on top, she suggests sprinkling cheese instead of pouring it on.
And to maintain the blood pressure-lowering benefits, “don’t put too much salt on it,” she said. “Use other spices. I like to eat them Szechuan style with cayenne pepper. Or dip raw green beans in hummus.”
The type of green bean also matters, Vadiveloo said. Fresh or frozen is best.
“That said, if what’s available to you is canned green beans and you’re choosing between that and a non-vegetable,” she said, “I would encourage people to choose the canned variety.”
But try to grab the low-sodium option.
The most important thing about maintaining good health over holiday meals, Vadiveloo said, is balance.
“If there’s something that people really, really like, if it’s a holiday favorite or something your aunt put on the table that you really crave, go ahead and have some,” she said. “But balance it with healthier sides and take only a little bit.”