10 Secrets To Healthier Chili

Chili is a perfect autumn dish. Try these easy ideas to give this comfort food classic a boost of nutrition without sacrificing flavor!

Warm chili and cold days go hand in hand, but this comfort food favorite isn’t always the healthiest choice, especially the store-bought canned variety, which is often loaded with excessive salt, sugar, and preservatives. Even your homemade version might be high in fat and missing some key nutrients. But there are easy ways to crank up the healthy meter on your next batch while improving on taste.

10 Secrets To Healthier Chili

Try one or all of these easy suggestions:

1. Chose lean meat. Try turkey or chicken, or if you want to stick to beef, make sure it is as lean as possible and use a little less. If you want to omit the meat altogether, you can add Portobello mushrooms, zucchini, or squash to get a nice texture and flavor.

Try lean ground turkey for your next batch of chili.

2. Up the beans. Instead of adding the standard 1 can of beans, increase the number and types of beans you use per pot, including white and red kidney, pinto, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), black beans, navy beans, and/or lentils. Beans and other legumes are one of the best sources of protein and fiber around. They’re inexpensive (they can really stretch a batch of chili into many meals) and contain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals such as copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc.

3. Add veggies. The more variety, the better. Add bell peppers in all colors, onions, mushrooms, carrots, squash, corn, sweet potatoes, eggplant — any of your favorites. Think bright colors like orange, red, or yellow when choosing veggies as they are full of powerful antioxidants that protect and regenerate your cells from disease. They’re also high in vitamins like vitamins A, C, and E and other nutrients such as lutein (for eye health), lycopene (for heart health and anti-cancer), and beta-carotene (for eye and immune health), just to name a few.

Add roasted peppers in different colors to your chili!

4. Spice it up. Add health-promoting spices such as chili powder, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, or even sumac. Be sure your spices are fresh (the ones that came with the spice rack don’t count) for the best flavor and health benefits. And don’t forget the fresh garlic! Garlic has long been used to not only add zest to food but for its remarkable preventive and healing properties.

5. Turn up the heat. Make your chili as hot as you can stand. According to a study by the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, hot red chili peppers are linked to a 13 percent decrease in overall mortality typically caused by heart disease or stroke. Use fresh jalepeños, habaneros, or other hot peppers such as ancho chilis or chipotles —the possibilities are endless. 

6. Add whole grains. While this may not seem like the obvious choice for chili, by simply adding a few whole grains like quinoa, wheat berries, or brown rice, you can significantly increase the heart-healthy power of this favorite comfort food. Cook the grains ahead of time, then add to the batch or serve the chili on top.

7. Add apple cider vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is known for its unbeatable health properties, from improving your digestion and regulating blood sugar levels, to boosting your immune system and overall energy. By adding a few tablespoons of cider vinegar to your chili, you can not only ramp up the flavor but also its health-promoting benefits.

8. Cut back on the salt. This is a good tip for any dish, but chili can have a lot of extra salt, especially if you use packaged spice mixes and canned beans. While canned beans may be more convenient, they actually have 758 mg of sodium—32 percent of the recommended daily intake—compared to dried red kidney beans, which have only 20 mg, 1 percent of the recommended daily intake of salt.

9. Top with fresh herbs.  Adding fresh herbs like fresh parsley or cilantro to your bowl of chili brings a punch of flavor and a burst of health benefits, including valuable antioxidants, vitamins, and important dietary fiber, all of which studies show can improve health.

10. Try Some Chocolate. Chocolate? … in chili!? Yes! Unsweetened cocoa powder or chocolate is often used in Mexican cooking (think mole sauces) and is an easy way to add antioxidants and robust flavor without the calories. All you’ll need is 1-2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate per pot of chili.

Some other notes: Go easy on the toppings. Your healthy chili can be undone quickly when it’s loaded with cheese, full-fat sour cream, and unlimited tortilla chips. Try topping each bowl with any of these healthier options: heart-healthy avocado cubes, fresh chopped cilantro, a tablespoon of low-fat cheese, a dollop of fat-free Greek yogurt, chopped fresh scallions, lime wedges. Limit yourself to 1 ounce of chips.

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Cynthia McMurray

Cynthia McMurray is a freelance writer and journalist, and publisher of a national health magazine. She has written books for leading health professionals and is the owner of Write Words, a consulting business for writers. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her article, Animals' Amazing Sense of Direction  appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac.


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kathleen baker

I am trying to find callicarpa americana essential oil. Can you let me know where I can order it. Read your article in 2018 Farmers Almanac. Thank you.

Susan Higgins

Hi Kathleen, we’re not familiar with that one. But check out PennHerb.com, they usually have all the essential oils, and may have this one.


I cannot believe I used the wrong form of “their”. Shame on me!

Susan Higgins

Don’t worry, Ellen, you’re forgiven!


A certain fast food chain has chili and baked potatoes on there $1 menu. A very inexpensive and healthy lunch option. At home we often serve chili over a bed of rice, or over a tossed salad, or over a baked potato. All by itself is terrific, too!


Ancho peppers are dried poblano peppers. No such thing as fresh ancho. Just saying!

As to the post above, you gotta soak dried beans.. otherwise they will mess your stomach up and could potentially be digested into cyanide depending on the bean used.

Susan Higgins

Hi Nicolas, In that portion of the story, we were listing areas where you can add some heat, and included fresh jalepenos, habanaros, or other other peppers like ancho chilis or chipotle peppers (both of which are not fresh). We’ll adjust the story so that’s clear.

Ceara Sullivan

You forgot to mention cumin (the seeds made by cilantro). I use more oil than you have here; olive oil is a good choice, as are chopped Kalamata olives for some depth of flavor. The body is better able to use many nutrients in the presence of (safe) vegetable oils and meat fats. See Dr. Cate Shanan’s research on meat fats. They are much healthier than the ubiquitous canola oil. Long term the latter causes blood vessel problems.

My stomach finds dried beans too harsh. So I open a couple of cans of organic beans and rinse them well in a colander. I cook briefly, barely covered, with a dash of baking soda before doing a repeat rinse. Some say this removes vitamins but if it’s a food you already can’t handle, reducing the nutrient is less drastic than omitting beans entirely.
We’re glad to have chile again.

Re parsley: it’s known to be a high nutrient green. I wash bunches of them (wash well to remove sand) and then put the clean (wet) leaves and stems through the food processor. Think of it as parsley pesto. Frozen in silicone ice cube trays (two bunches will fill one tray) I put one or two cubes into the chile, depending on the size of the pot. Add it late: having it in a frozen paste form means it doesn’t require much cooking and preserves nutrients.

Even my picky veggie eaters don’t notice the ground up parsley, yet along with cress it’s an excellent source of Vitamin K. I sneak it into everything but ice cream.

Find the ORAC values of parsley, cocoa, and cumin by doing a search for same. These three are in the top 20, along with cinnamon (a pinch in chile gives a kick and is undetectable in the complexity of flavors.

BTW, one important point about flavors which the Japanese have known for years: make sure the umami flavor underlies everything. I do this by omitting all salt and using a teaspoon of anchovy paste instead mixing it in some tomato sauce and then adding half-way through cooking. Just like you can’t detect it in a well-made Cesar salad, you won’t be able to taste anything but the depth of flavor in your chile.

Susan Higgins

Hi Ceara Sullivan: Thank you for your note and your good suggestions! Actually, it’s coriander seeds that sprout cilantro. But both cumin and coriander are good choices for chili.

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