Enjoying a bowl of hot soup is a bit like sipping on liquid comfort. But it’s much more than a way to warm up and feel cozy. Soup can be a nutritious meal or snack, and it’s a delicious way to up your veggie intake. When soup contains colorful veggies, it provides antioxidants that help stabilize your cells and defend them from environmental pollutants (including the sun), the stress of regular exercise, and certain diseases, including cancer. These veggies also lower body-wide inflammation that can contribute to insulin resistance and weight problems.
Studies suggest that soup is a good appetite suppressant and starting off with some soup can help reduce your food intake during the rest of the meal, making it a good choice when weight loss is your goal. But soups can also take a detour down a less healthy path—loaded with cream and cheese, or even added sugar (hello, tomato soup) that won’t do your heart or waistline any favors. Here are some pointers for picking a nutritious soup for every occasion.
As an appetizer
Enjoying soup as a first course is a solid way to curb hunger and fill your body with nutrition. As an appetizer, look for broth-based options that are heavy on veggies, such as a minestrone or vegetable soup. Remember, your main entrée will provide the lean protein, a side of veggies, and the starchy side dish, so in this case, soup serves as a salad replacement.
As a meal
A meal-based soup should have sufficient protein to help fill you up and do the job of stoking your muscle repair-and-rebuild process, something that happens throughout the day. If one meal is off, it’s okay, but as a habit, aim to get about 20 grams of protein at each of your three meals. A bean-based soup, like lentil or black bean, should supply about 15 g, which is about what you’ll get in a bowl of chicken and vegetable soup. If you have a side of whole grain and seed crackers, like these Mary’s Gone Crackers, you’ll tack on a few more grams of protein. Or you could be mindful of including protein at a later snack.
On the side
If you’re having a soup/salad or soup/sandwich combo, consider the overall balance of your meal to make sure you’re achieving your protein targets and not overdoing the starches. For instance, if you’re choosing a salad topped with grilled chicken, the protein is less of an issue for the soup. In this case, something like a butternut squash or pumpkin soup (both which supply some carbohydrate) could be good choices. If your salad is really veggie-centric, you might want to choose a bean-based soup or a hearty chicken soup.
When you’re sick
You don’t need me to tell you that soup hits the spot when you’re sick, but I’ll shed some light on why it’s your go-to when you feel crummy. Liquids in soup help keep you hydrated, the salt in soup can soothe a sore throat, and the steam that rises from a hot bowl of soup helps ease your congestion. Plus, there are nutrients in soup that can lower inflammation. When you’re not feeling well, broth-based soups, like chicken soup, are the perfect antidote.
Here are a few more tips for enjoying soup in the most nutritious way:
If you’re eating out, know that soups are notoriously high in sodium. There’s really no way around this other than to balance out your day by opting mostly whole foods instead of other packaged or convenient ones. In particular, have plenty of produce throughout the day. Fruits and veggies provide potassium, which counters the impact of sodium in the body. Drinking plenty of water will also help flush out all the excess.
Canned soup is also notoriously high in sodium so try to find lower-sodium versions or be sure to balance out your soup with fruits and veggies and water, as suggested above.
Think outside of the can or box! I love doctoring up a can of lentil soup with some fresh spinach (added to the cold soup, it will wilt when heated) and herbs or spices, such as curry powder. A box of butternut squash soup is delicious when you add some chopped apple and pecans or walnuts, and black bean soup can be freshened up with a squeeze of lime and some avocado slices.
If you’re buying packaged soup, compare labels and don’t forget to read the ingredients. You’re looking for mostly whole food ingredients (instead of preservatives, fillers, and other less healthful additions). And keep in mind that most boxes and cans contain two servings, though it’s fine to eat the entire amount. Just know that the sodium adds up!
If you’re buying soup from a can or box, look for versions that say they’re BPA-free. BPA is a chemical often found in the lining of canned foods, and it’s an obesogenic, which is exactly what you think it is!
Simple pumpkin coconut soup
This simple soup is full of flavor and it comes together really fast. It’s low in protein so if you’re having it as a meal, make sure to include a protein booster, such as chopped pecans or walnuts or roasted pumpkin seeds. Roasted chickpeas, such as these from Bienna, would also add lots of crunch—either stirred in or instead of chips or crackers on the side. Though you won’t hit 20 grams of protein, it’s a light meal or satisfying snack, and you can be mindful of protein intake at other eating occasions throughout the day.
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
1/2 c canned coconut milk (full fat)
½ shallot and 1 clove garlic, both diced
Pinch of salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg
In saucepan, heat chopped garlic & shallot in a drizzle of olive oil until fragrant. Add to blender with the remaining ingredients. Purée. Return to saucepan. Heat & eat.