10 Tips for Better Bean Digestion; A Few Announcements

by Gena on March 29, 2012

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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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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex March 29, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I have recently been put on a low FODMAP diet because of IBS. It makes a huge difference but I have found it impossible to maintain a vegan diet which is ethically and spiritually very sad for me. I can’t eat gluten, beans, certain fruits and vegetables, amongst other things. My IBS is very much diarrhea orientated so too much fibre of any sort, even plain brown rice, makes things much much worse. Any suggestions?

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Laura March 30, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Alex, if it helps, gluten itself is actually a low FODMAPs foodstuff, in fact it is the outer layers of the grain, especially the bran that contains all the fermentable macromolecules. Therefore you can, in theory, eat seitan or gluten containing foods, (although everyone is different and you should definitely follow the plan you have agreed with your doctor). I think hemp products are ok too- at least they are for me. I haven’t been able to find that much data for them due to FODMAPs research predominantly originating from Australia where hemp is banned. Likewise rice protein powder and peanut flour help me meet my protein needs. I do sympathise though, it can be so restricting and cause a great deal of internal conflict. I’m still vegan- just- but have had a number of instances where I’ve been admitted to A&E and almost had appendectomies etc before the clinicians have realised it is because I ate brussel sprouts/ green beans/ legumes. I miss beans so. Sorry for such a convoluted response!

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Alex March 31, 2012 at 1:18 am

Laura, thank you for writing back to me. You are so right about the internal conflict. It is a terribly confusing time and I am really struggling. Funnily enough I am in Sydney Australia. I can get hemp seeds here in health food shops (although they are marked not for human consumption????). Seitan is hard to find. Going to try and order some online and see how I go. Thank you so much again. It is really nice to hear from people in similar situations. xxx

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Anonymous March 31, 2012 at 2:18 pm

tricky thing about specific laws: adding not for human consumption of the label keeps the healthfood store from getting into trouble! We have one in Canada for something else and it’s basically the same situation, just different types of products!

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Sarah April 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I am in a very similar boat–I stopped being able to eat a lot of things (beans, most grains) because of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth) and other health issues. Though at first I tried to stay vegetarian I just wasn’t able to get enough nutrients. In terms of ethics and spirituality, it has been a hard journey, but at the end of the day I have realized I don’t believe in a God who would have created my body so that it’s unethical to eat the foods I need to heal. I hope it’s okay to talk about eating meat on this blog… but I really wanted to respond since we have such a similar situation!

I focus on getting animal products from the farmers’ market where I can meet the farmers and know their values, and I also use a lot of bone broth. It’s supposed to be really good for healing your stomach, but the reason I most like it is because if you’re going to eat an animal, I believe it is a ethical imperative to use all of it wisely, and in today’s society things like bones, liver, etc. often become waste products. Eating chicken soup made with the whole chicken instead of boneless, skinless chicken breasts is the healthier, more spiritually sound option.

Another idea–my acupuncturist has suggested I take HCL and probiotics to help me digest my food more easily.

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Anonymous November 11, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Take calcium and vit D. It will take almost 2 months but works. I also take probiotics which may also have helped.

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Hannah March 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Gena – it’s as if you wrote this for me!!! ;-) Hahah just kidding…but really, this is a very helpful post as beans usually take center stage in a plant-based or vegan diet.

Just watched the ad – that is absolutely revolting. It’s actually just really, really stupid. First of all, not all vegans are skinny, and eating meat will not necessarily make you fat (hello, tons of disordered eaters may just subsist on a piece of meat a day, which is horrible). Ads like this just perpetuate weight stigma which is so disheartening and doesn’t get us anywhere.

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Allie March 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Good tips! Why is it that you’re not supposed to chug water with meals? I definitely am guilty of this!

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Cheryl Boswell March 30, 2012 at 7:38 am

I never heard that either. I am going to try it. I have two 8 ounce glasses of water before dinner though. It really helps curb my appetite.

That’s a good post by Gena. I like beans, but I always overlook them because they seem hard to prepare and the canned ones are not an option due to the sodium.

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Anonymous March 31, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I was in the same boat as you with regards to dry beans being difficult to prepare, but the other day I knew I would have time after school the next day to cook, so I threw a cup of black beans into a container and went to sleep, almost 16 hours later I threw them into soups and a food processor to make hummus, and there was nothing so delicious!

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Ela March 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Wow, congratulations! That’s so awesome and well-deserved!

Great tips on the beans. Two more I might add: as well as/instead of kombu, cook with a piece of ginger in there. And add vinegar or anything acidic after the beans are already tender–otherwise, it’ll retard their thorough cooking. Great primer on the poly- and oligosaccharides and resistant starch also. So much cheaper and better made at home… Cook them long and slow…
I’m interested to hear about “‘beanzyme”–beano is not only not vegan, it also contains gluten, so I wonder whether beanzyme does better on that score.

love
Ela

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Gena March 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Had no idea about ginger! Thanks!!

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Laura C March 29, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I’ve heard the same thing- vinegar or lemon. My Israeli friend says this is (perhaps) why lemon is so common in Middle Eastern bean dishes like hummus.
Thank you for these tips!! I’ve had some bad challenges with beans but they seem to come and go- and it makes sense now that they’ve been less of a problem when eaten more frequently.

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bitt March 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm

kombu is huge! and adjusting slowly is good advice too. i have never done the “quick soak” method, i keep hearing about it and i am curious to try it.

PCRM is so disappointing! they are like the new PETA, just try to shock people into paying attention.

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Max March 29, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I’m sure PCRM is pleased with itself for the controversy it has created with its new ad. But controversy means attention not success. How would the ad appeal to a larger sized person who is not yet a vegan? Honestly, if they are saying a vegan diet can promote weight loss, well one has to start out as larger size in order to lose a substantial amount of weight. Plus of course skinny does not automatically equal healthy. Plus body image is an issue for many people, not just those of a larger size. And being vegan isn’t a cure for body image issues. They seem to be all about the nutrition aspect supposedly and have zero interest in politics, except when they use politics (as in identity politics) for its handy stereotypes. They need to work harder to make innovative ads. I would challenge those of us who dislike these ads to create our own images promoting veganism. Otherwise, we could live in PCRM’s world of sexist, sizeist, ageist, racist, vaguely homophobic (heavy guy rubs up against the seated guy in the ad) vegans. Yeah, that’s what the world needs, skinny bigoted vegans. Thanks for nothing PCRM.

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Gena March 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? Presumably many of the people PCRM is targeting are overweight and in need of healthier diet. And marginalizing them is supposed to draw them in, and inspire them?

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Tiina March 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

I eat DuPuy lentils a lot (in a stew from a recipe that I got from Ina Gartner’s books/website that’s quite good- her lentil stew if you search it). She says to pick over the beans also. I sort of look them over as they pour out, but have never found any rocks or anything. Apparently that is what you’re looking for, as the processing method uses stones in some step or another. Having never found anything bad, I’ve gotten a bit hastier about this step. Have you ever found anything in the pick-over?

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Gena March 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Not once.

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Averie @ Averie Cooks March 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Congrats on making the Top Vegan Women’s blogs…you deserve it!!

And great bean tips. I need all the help I can get to make beans more, ahem, friendly for me :)

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Anastasia@healthymamainfo.com March 30, 2012 at 12:46 am

Awesome advise!

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Rebecca March 30, 2012 at 1:17 am

Amazing, informative post! Thank you so much!
Sincerely,
Rebecca’s intestines (who can’t wait to digest your lentil salad :)

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Gena March 30, 2012 at 6:42 am

Ha! I suspect your large intestine is the issue, not your small intestine, and thanks :)

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susie March 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm

It’s embarrassing that as a medical student, you’re not aware that the colon consists of the large intestine/IS the large intestine?

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Gena March 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I’m a pre-medical student, not a medical student. And I assumed that my friend Rebecca meant “intestines” to imply her small intestine, which some people do when they use that word instead of “colon” or “bowel.” Perhaps she did not, in which case mea culpa for sure.

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Rebecca March 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm

All parts of my digestive system thoroughly thank you for the post! And my taste buds send a shout out too ;)

Sarah March 30, 2012 at 2:35 am

The Thinking Vegan has a good article about the issue of ‘shaming’ in vegan advertising;
http://thethinkingvegan.com/articles/fat-shaming-doesn%E2%80%99t-help-animals/

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Wendy (Healthy GIrl's Kitchen) March 30, 2012 at 6:32 am

Gena-I’m sure you have heard that expression, “No publicity is bad publicity.” In the case with PCRM, I think they are going to radical measures to get the message out, and they have to know that what they are doing is offensive to many people, but they have chosen to offend some in the quest to educate the many. I’m very interested in how much publicity it is getting them. I have a feeling this campaign will accomplish its desired effect, even if it is mean.

As far as the farting goes, I for one can testify that your body does adapt! So go for it, and eat beans and pretty soon you won’t have that horrible gas anymore. And while you are going through the adjustment period, keep thinking to yourself, these farts are a sign that I am eating something really healthy!

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Gena March 30, 2012 at 6:39 am

Wendy,

I totally respect that point, but I don’t agree; I think some publicity can certainly add to the public’s general distrust, disrespect, and contempt for vegans. I suspect that this ad is going to alienate, hurt, and turn off the very overweight Americans whom we’d like to coax into making healthier choices; the only people this add may appeal to are people who are already thin and already on the vegan team, because it’s so smug and self-congratulatory.

In the end, we’ll only know if the ads accomplished anything by weighing how many folks they actually compelled to go vegan versus folks who found them distasteful, stupid, and a confirmation of all of their worst prejudices against vegans. Every non-vegan I’ve showed so far unfortunately has said that, if the didn’t know me or read my blog, this ad would turn them off veganism. But of course, time will tell.

And thanks for chiming in about how bodies adapt!

:)

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Wendy (Healthy GIrl's Kitchen) March 30, 2012 at 10:09 am

I do want to add that the adjustment period to lots of beans and cruciferous vegetables took my body about 18 months. I say that because I know that people want to see a difference in a few weeks and many give up pretty quickly. However long it takes, it’s worth it.

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Ricki March 30, 2012 at 6:34 am

Congrats on the Top Ten–so well deserved! Fabulous tips. Wish I had known some of these when I started eating more beans and legumes ;-). I can also add to Ela’s point above–adding something acidic also makes the minerals more bioavailable in the beans, so you’re not only getting a more comfortable digestion, but absorbing more of those all-important nutrients as well. :)

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Gena March 30, 2012 at 6:41 am

So good to know!

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Kim March 30, 2012 at 6:37 am

I don’t think ads like that do any favors for the vegans that are more casual in their attitude towards a vegan diet. I mean, I’m very passionate about my veganism, but only toward myself. I don’t go out shaming people or hurting them just over diet. I kind of equate it to bashing people over politics (an occupational hazard in the DC Metro area, unfortunately), religion, race, sexuality, and other hot button issues. But ads like that only perpetuate the stereotype that vegans are intolerable, holier-than-thou radicals. I’d rather charm someone and maybe make them think about changing their diet through a great vegan dish than shame them and make them angry through ads like that.

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Gena March 30, 2012 at 6:41 am

Unfortunately, Kim, I think the ads confirm many of the American public’s totally unfair misconceptions and prejudices against vegans: the idea that we’re preachy, smug, self-congratulatory, holier-than-thou. It doesn’t do us any favors.

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sarah March 30, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thank you so much for this post! I love reading your blogs for reasons like this. My body has a love hate relationship with beans and lentils.. After feeling bloated for a few days, I usually give up and try other foods, but maybe I need to stick it out and see if my body adjusts. I made your lentil salad the other night for my 7 yr old daughter and myself. I subbed chick peas as that’s what I had and she managed to gobble most of it herself! I love being able show my kids how to eat healthy, simply! My habits have also taught her to ask questions everytime she eats food. Like ‘Is this good for me?’ “What does it help my body do?” I think it’s so much more effective to teach people to eat healthy and help their bodies than to tear down what they are at a particular moment in their life.

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Hannah March 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Congratulations, Gena! Top Ten, definitely :)

I’ve always wondered why beans affect some people and not others. Mum and I have never had a problem, digestively, with copious amounts of legume-y goodness, but my brother and dad would always be grumbling (ahem) afterwards.

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Cat @ Cat's Kitchen April 1, 2012 at 9:07 pm

I’ve heard that using canned legumes can help when cooking them again, because they’ve already been cooked once. But by the sounds of it it’s not the cooking heaps that helps but the soaking?

I think I’ll be doing a bit of both, because tinned legumes are so convenient, but my partner is finding the tinned chickpeas I was using for his lunches were making him a bit grumbly! And I’m definitely interested in seeing the taste difference.

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Whitney April 2, 2012 at 9:28 am

Congrats on your blogging honors, Gena! Well-deserved, of course. And, as always, thanks for an extremely helpful post. :)

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Tricia April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Haha, just got back from Nicaragua where we ate beans with almost every meal. I’m used to eating beans, but my classmates weren’t, lol, so at first, a lot of people had some stomach issues… By the end of the week, though, even I had my fair share of beans, and now most of us (ahem, the girls– the guys apparently have stomachs of steal) are suffering the after affects lol.

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Kait April 2, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Gena what are your thoughts on phytates? I hear about them all the time from my Paleo friends who use the as the argument against eating legumes. I did a bit of research and it seems that their existence is acknowledged somewhat by the vegan community but could not find any good quality resources. I’m wondering what you know about them and if you could clear the air a little! I’m still eating beans regularly but do think that more info on how to live a balanced veg life is a good thing! TIA

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merry March 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I have been vegan for 4 months now, was vegetarian for 3 months before that. I am very careful about eating a variety of different beans, lentils, veggies(esp red and leafy green) and fruit, daily. I am gluten intolerant. So dont eat much bread, only that which I make on occasion with lots of seeds. For somw reason, my period is late by 2-3 weeks every time, and my whole body retains water during that time.Is this a common problem?

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Sara April 4, 2013 at 11:44 am

Hi. Good article. Teaching a bean cooking class this weekend so I’m just digging around the internet for inspiration.
I do have to make one point though – you mentioned how important is it to maintain a level of every food group. Animal protein and fat are not only a food group, but for some people an essential one. I say this while barely eating meat and recognizing how nasty the commercial meat industry is. But I’ve seen clients thrive on vegan diets and one’s that include animal protein. I’ve also seen the reverse in both. Just sayin’. Beans are still my favourite :)

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Gena April 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Hi Sara, thanks so much for reading, and I hope that you have an excellent bean class :) I think I’m envious!

By “food groups,” I meant macronutrient groups–protein, fat, and carbohydrate (I should go back and clarify that comment as such). To me, animal foods are not so much a food group in their own right as they are one variety of protein. New food pyramid guidelines also treat “protein” as a macronutrient group in which soy foods or legumes might serve to meet adequacy; there is no mandate that animal flesh be included, and current research (as well as the ADA) supports veganism as a viable dietary choice so long as it is well planned and balanced. There is no evidence that we (on average) must eat animal food to survive. This doesn’t mean that there may not be some people who try veganism and find they don’t feel their best (and oftentimes another nuance or approach to veganism might help–vegan diets cover a gamut of eating styles!), but on balance I wouldn’t say that there is much clinical evidence to prove that meat is essential for human survival.

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Ninaincarolina November 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Yo Alex:

I had diarreah for years. Probably due to taking lits of cortizone. Took calcium along with vitamin D and was completely corrected within 2 months.

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