tips better bean digestion

Thanks for all the kind responses to the news of Adrienne Rich’s death, and the quote I shared. I loved all of the empowered remarks you guys left. It’s worth pointing out that treating our bodies to high quality food and choosing a healthy lifestyle are some of the most potent ways that all women (and men!) can take “responsibility for themselves.” Which is part of why we’re all here.

On Sunday, I shared a recipe for lentil salad with mint, cucumber, and simple balsamic dressing. I mentioned in passing my tremendous passion for lentils, and for legumes of all sorts, which prompted a few of you to ask: “what do I do if I have a hard time digesting legumes?”

This is an important question, since legumes are without a doubt one of the most nutrient dense and health-supporting foods for vegans and vegetarians (and all conscious eaters)! Legumes are good sources of iron, B vitamins, folate, and calcium. They are rich in soluble fiber, which–in addition to its cholesterol lowering properties–may be helpful in the management of irritable bowel syndrome (see this post for the differences between soluble and insoluble fiber). The fiber also aids in satiety and helps to stabilize blood sugar, which means you won’t crash after your meal. Add to that the fact that beans have an incredibly high nutrient:calorie ratio, are good sources of vegan protein, and enable all sorts of delicious meals, and you have quite a few reason to add more of them to your diet!

Of course, as certain time-honored childhood rhymes go, beans can be difficult for some people to digest. Why? They contain oligosaccharides, or starches, for which our bodies have limited stores of digestive enzymes. We do have some of the enzyme, but it resides only in our stomach bacteria, and if we don’t eat beans regularly, we likely won’t have quite enough of it to digest them without trouble (note, however, that we do have the enzyme in some amount; lots of sources claim that we simply lack it altogether, which is not entirely accurate).

As you’ll see, the main way to combat this challenge is to gradually add more beans to your diet, which will encourage the enzyme’s presence. But along with that, I’m pleased to share ten other tips that ought to help make it easier and more pleasant for you to keep legumes–which are true superfoods if ever there were any–in your diet.

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1) Increase your bean consumption—gradually. Per the above, eating more and more legumes will encourage a greater presence of the enzyme we need to digest them, and help to get you over your fear of the mighty bean!

Try adding them into your diet in 1/4 cup increments, and increasing very slowly. I can eat at least a cup of beans in one sitting (though a more standard portion size, for me, is 1/2 to 3/4 cup), but that’s because I’ve been happily and comfortably been eating beans for a long time. Keep experimenting with fun, new recipes until you arrive at a place where you’re digesting beans without discomfort.

2) Try Beanzyme. This is a vegan version of Beano (which, sadly, is not vegan). It’s a supplement of the enzyme necessary for bean digestion (also useful for crucifers like broccoli, which contain oligosaccharides, too), and it can be immensely helpful if you plan on eating a meal that is rich in legumes.

3) Soak your beans before cooking. Do you make beans from scratch? If not, it’s a great habit to get into: it’s cheaper than buying canned beans, it leaves you with zero risk of BPA lining from cans getting into your food, and home cooked beans are simply so much tastier (especially in hummus) than canned.

If you do boil beans from scratch, soaking them beforehand may make a difference in terms of digestibility because it releases the tricky oligosaccharides that cause discomfort. You can either do a “quick soak” or a “long soak.” For a “quick soak,” rinse and pick over your beans, cover them with water (1 part beans: 3 parts water) and boil them for five minutes. Let them sit for an hour after, and then cook through.

For a long soak, pick over and clean beans, cover them in water (1 part beans : 3 parts water) and then let them soak 8 hours, or overnight. Drain and change water before cooking through. For most beans, this will mean about an hour of simmering. If you pressure cook your beans, you can still do the soak beforehand!

4) Cook beans with a strip of kombu (a seaweed available online and in health stores). I used to wonder why people did this, until I was told that kombu actually contains some of the enzyme needed to digest beans. Not entirely sure if it’s true, but cooking beans with kombu is a very old tradition (common in macrobiotic cooking) so I would not be surprised if this were the underlying wisdom.

5) If you use canned beans, be sure to rinse them thoroughly. I love using the canning juice in hummus sometimes, because the starch creates a thick texture, but the truth is that this liquid can certainly enhance flatulence. So if beans don’t go down easily for you, rinse and rinse some more.

6) Eat beans with other grains and proteins. Prevailing wisdom used to dictate that vegans had to eat “complete” proteins at each meal by pairing foods together–rice and beans are a good example. We now know that this is not the case; so long as vegans take care to get all essential amino acids over the course of each day, week, month, and so on, whether or not they are eaten together at each meal is not essential (though it may be a good way to remind yourself to eat consciously).

That said, some claim that beans are easier to digest when paired with other proteins that “complete” the protein profile for a meal, so if you have a hard time with them, you may want to try rounding them out with quinoa, rice, or barley (or any whole grain you love).

7) Don’t salt beans while you cook them; flavor them after they’re cooked. Salting will cook beans faster, but they’ll be tougher in texture and may not have the same digestibility that slow cooking and soaking afford.

8   ) Add some spice. In traditional Indian cooking, spices are thought to improve the digestibility of legumes. The scientific logic behind this may be that certain spices will actually change the enzymatic properties of the beans, thus changing how easily we can break them down. Indian spices used in bean preparation include ginger, turmeric, fennel and asafoetida.

9) Add beans to your soup. The broth and liquid will first absorb, and then cook off, some of the resistant oligosaccharides, which may help you to digest the beans.

10) Follow all of my usual tips for happy digestion: chew thoroughly, eat mindfully, don’t chug water with meals.

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It’s also worth noting that beans contain something called resistant starch, a class of starch that cannot be completely digested. It’s similar to oligosaccharides, but not the same thing. And ironically, it is our inability to digest the stuff completely that makes it good for us! Resistant starches are fermented by intestinal bacterial into fatty acids, and this process has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer (dramatically, in some studies).

All the more reason to keep beans in your diet, and work toward improved digestion and assimilation. Lately, I see a lot of people cutting out huge numbers of food groups in an effort to manage digestive upset. I applaud these efforts to proactively get to the bottom of what’s causing discomfort, but food group elimination can be a double edged sword. The less foods we eat, the more our bodies start to lose the enzymatic stores we need to break down and efficiently digest a varied diet. Beans are a great example, in that they may cause a little discomfort at first, but if you work to prepare them properly and increase your consumption gradually, your body will often become more adept at handling them.

Unless you have an allergy or intolerance, do try to find a way to enjoy legumes, even in small or gradual amounts. They are some of the most nutrient-packed foods out there, and between hummus, daal, soups, stews, and salad toppings, you’ll be thrilled with both their taste and their health properties!

Before I go, some quick announcements:

1) Remember how the NY Times is having a “tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat” contest? Well, the amazing Jasmin and Mariann are hosting a “tell us why it’s unethical to eat meat” essay contest, complete with a couple of fun prizes. This is a perfect challenge for CR readers who are going through the same transformation I did, from being a vegan who is simply interested in health and digestion, to a vegan who is also interested in conscious and compassionate food choices. Sometimes, writing about your intellectual journey is a great way to affirm your sense of purpose. Why not submit an essay today?

2) You all may remember that, in February, I wrote about PCRM’s unfortunate “your body on cheese” ad campaign. Sadly, they seem to have come up with yet another one. The embarrassing TV spot also puts down overweight people, but this time it goes beyond that to glorify a particular body type and equate it with good health. That body type is, of course, a skinny, blonde female. Too bad. I’d love to know your thoughts, so check it out here.

The reason I bother mentioning these ads, by the way, is because I admire so much of what PCRM does. Admiration of organizations is precisely what makes us, their fans, care about their messaging and tactics.

3) I’m honored to have made The Vegan Woman’s top 10 vegan food blogs of 2012! I’m in stellar company, and I’m so surprised and flattered. Hooray!

xo

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