Making Beans More Digestible – And the Fiber Connection

When it comes to digesting beans and legumes, complaints about not being able to digest them, or suffering with a painful balloon belly is a common concern. 

One of the common reasons for this has to do with your gut microbiome — all those microorganisms that live in the GI tract.

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria that ideally live in a symbiotic relationship with you. This means you and they both benefit from them being there. Just like you, the microbes need to eat to live and grow, so they obtain nourishment from the food you eat. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber,) that is passing through your large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as Butyrate. And beans and legumes are rich in fiber. 

When we introduce any food that we haven’t routinely been eating into our diet, what often occurs is a readjustment period at the microbiome level. Think of it like the first day of a new job or school year. There’s going to be some shakeup to the internal routine and homeostasis. This means there might be more uncomfortable symptoms before optimal digestion occurs because the type of bacteria that eat the food you’re eating is growing its population, while die off of the type that no longer has a food source is also happening. 

But if we can make that transition smoother and get to the optimal digestion that occurs when we can tolerate eating beans and other fiber-rich foods, we’re setting ourselves up for increased intestinal health. This is because short chain fatty acids, produced by those beneficial bacteria in the intestine, play an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. 

Whereas we don’t want an overgrowth of bad bacteria, having ample and diverse beneficial bacteria is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 80% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes into play here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods that are in your normal routine. 

Tips for Increasing Digestibility of Beans and Legumes

If you struggle with tolerating beans and legumes, first try out the smallest, quick-cook split mung beans, red lentils, and whole green mung beans. They are easiest to digest. The larger beans are more drying in nature, and tougher for the body to break down. Red lentils and split mung beans break down and cook quickly in 20-30 minutes, and they don’t usually need soaking or planning ahead. However, if you are already having tummy troubles, soaking is a good idea. 

Below are a few more tips to help make lentils and beans more digestible:

– Introduce beans and lentils into your diet slowly. Because beans are rich in fiber and will take a few days or couple weeks to repopulate the type of bacteria in your gut that will break them down and digest them, introduce them in small amounts. If you’re particularly sensitive, start with 1-2 tablespoons per meal, and work up from there to a standard ½ – ¾ cup serving.

– Soak and rinse in a big bowl of water, overnight or for 1-6 hours, depending on the type of legume. For large beans, you’ll need an overnight soak. For smaller beans such as adzuki and mung beans, a six hour soak will do. And for lentils and split mung, a soak of an hour is sufficient. Discard the soaking water before using in your recipe.

– If there is foam that rises to the top of the pot while cooking, skim it off. The foam contains a type of protein that is hard on your digestive system. When in nutrition school, my cooking instructor Eleonora constantly repeated, ‘skim your beans’ so often that I hear her voice every time I see foam! 

– Make sure the lentils – or other beans – are cooked thoroughly. This means they are soft, not al dente. One of the biggest challenges with digesting canned canned beans is that most of them are not actually cooked as well as they should be for proper digestion. Cooking until the lentils or beans begin to break apart, or in the case of red lentils and split mung, turn into mush completely, is the best way to know they’re done.

– Add spices! Carminative spices, meaning they boost the digestive capacity, makes meals more digestible. This is why a big soup pot with beans and meat often contains a bay leaf. Other carminative spices include ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and more. Virtually every cuisine of the world is ripe with carminatives in the traditional recipes for the exact purpose of not only adding flavor, but also boosting digestion!

– Add a squeeze of lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. Ideally every meal contains a slightly sour flavor addition, since sour helps to activate digestive enzymes. Most meals don’t need to taste outright sour, however. A little addition at the end of cooking goes a long way and often balances the recipe that’s missing ‘just a little something.’

– Eat your foods warm. If you think of an ideal digestive scenario as a nice little cozy fire in the digestive system, eating cold foods is like throwing cold water on it. Not so great for turning food into nutrients and energy! 

– Reduce stimulus during mealtime. Eating while multitasking with your phone, computer, while reading or watching a video, and eating in a loud, overstimulated environment or while upset or anxious is a recipe for continued GI problems. Our gut and brain are incredibly closely linked. We can go a long way to improve tolerance to the foods we eat just by eating slowly, chewing each bite upwards of 30 times (yes, really!), and not doing anything else while eating, other than eating. If you try these tips, you might also find you enjoy your food more, which is always an added bonus.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind. Signs of imbalance include lack of appetite, bloating or gas, pain or cramps, chronic fatigue, sluggish or rapid digestion, extreme Appetite, bodily aches, skin irritations, itching and rashes, brain fog, and irritability. 

Reach Out 

If you’re ready for more individualized nutritional guidance, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support on digestion, sports nutrition, or both. 

The Time That Healing Takes

image drawn by the author

I’ve been having lots of conversations lately about the expectations we have for ourselves. We expect once we begin taking action to improve our health condition, that a shift to doing better will come quickly. 

We read books, or internet articles, or hear someone’s gospel-like miracle healing story, and we expect that for ourselves too.

And sometimes that’s the case. We feel substantially better almost immediately. 

But that’s not always the reality. 

In fact, if you listen to nearly any respected academic researcher or health practitioner, or expert in their field, they often stray away from miracle stories and black and white health panacea protocols. And they instead use language more along the lines of “…it depends” and “not one thing that helps but a combination of [diet and lifestyle] factors.” 

Healing Isn’t Linear

Rarely ever is healing, or improving in whatever goal we have for ourselves, linear.  One finite example, is that it takes at least five days for the lining of the gut to repair itself after it’s been damaged, and a full three to five weeks for a food that triggered the inflammatory process to fully leave the system.

So as we already switch our calendars over from the first month of the new year into the second, this is my gentle reminder to you. 

Go easy with yourself. 

Expect less linear lines and gold stars at the top, and more nuance, (adventure!), overcoming fear, stepping into the unknown, and learning more about yourself and your needs.

Something Practical

And for something practical to guide you, here’s a little practice to try: Ask yourself what you need today by really stopping what you’re doing and resting a moment in complete not-doing-or-thinking-ness. And then ask yourself, what do I need today to feel better? How can I care for myself better today? 

Our bodies are meant to heal themselves. Sometimes we have to mentally get out of our own way and give them care and time(!) to do so. 

Reach Out 

If nothing comes up for you in the reflective exercise above, or you’re ready for more nutritional guidance, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support on digestion, sports nutrition, or both. 

Barriers to Healing: Ownership or Attachment to our Struggles

I’ve been reminded lately of barriers we put in place that prevent us from healing chronic health challenges, or negative habits.

That barrier is how we attach ourselves to and start to own our struggles.

Here are a few example statements that illustrate this:
– My typical GI struggles.
– I’ve always hated vegetables.
– I’ve always struggled with digestion. So have my parents.
– I’ve had that ever since I was kid. I’ve always had it.
– I never recover well during a (marathon) training cycle, and never get my nutrition and health to go right enough to be prepared for the race.
– My anemia pattern.

Another example is identifying with our diagnosis or diet pattern as if it were a job title. This is often easily visible on social media. You might witness or use something like IBS Warrior or Ulcerative Colitis Warrior, or Celiac next to a name in a bio, as an example.

I’ll use my past self as another example. For a long time, I felt like whatever medical mystery that presented as something autoimmune meant I’d be in daily chronic pain forever. This began at age 27. I was in constant fear and anxiety about the pain, and I felt like I couldn’t get outside that experience, even temporarily. Fast forward seven years and my body and mind feel remarkably different. The cloud of bleakness hanging over me, the fear of pain, the internal anguish that I couldn’t understand is no longer part of my everyday.

Yes, when it comes to healing something that has been chronic, finding the right nutrition plan and lifestyle practices are incredibly important. But healing is also energetic. You have to believe it’s possible. And you have to change your mindset and the energy you put around the process.

You have to believe your body is meant to heal.

And we start to believe what we say about ourselves. By saying we always struggle with something, that means deep down that we probably believe we will always struggle with it.

This simple, though definitely not easy, nugget of first changing what we say (out loud and internally) is what catalyzes healing. We start to believe lasting healing is possible. We seek out and then are put into connection with individuals who further light the healing pathway from whatever we’re currently experiencing – an autoimmune condition, IBS, chronic fatigue, a lifetime of emotional and disordered eating and body hate, weight woes, medical diagnoses that are largely written off, etc.

And sometimes our catalyst for healing is just an example from another person.

For instance, we all operate within a community, whether that’s in person in our daily lives, or people we follow online who influence us. Often, we identify with individuals who have journeyed through similar experiences and challenges as us.

What often distinguishes individuals who are incredibly good at healing themselves for the long term, and those that have chronic set-backs, lies in what the first group don’t spend their time doing.

These “experts at healing” don’t hang out in forums or self-help groups with individuals discussing the woes of their symptoms or how bad it is. They get out of their negative head space as soon as they notice they’ve fallen into it. They change their language in how they talk about their health. Instead of statements like “I always struggle with….” or “My faulty digestion….”, they view a health challenge as a temporary setback. My digestion is currently less than ideal — That’s a less permanent way to state that.

Or I haven’t yet arrived at the end of a training cycle feeling like I’ve nailed my nutrition and recovery strategies, but I believe it’s possible and I’m committed to exploring what has prevented me in the past.

Or My doctor believes I have lupus that I’ve put into semi-remission enough to be below the threshold for clinical diagnosis. I am not a victim. And I’m committed to my nutrition and lifestyle practices to continue my journey towards complete healing. This statement was my personal example.

In my case, I refused to mentally identify with or use the word lupus. For one, I didn’t have an actual diagnosis. But for me, that choice was energetic. This is similar to (before then) never using the words celiac, IBS, or dysbiosis about myself–though they were all either likely or true. These words we attach ourselves to are incredibly powerful. And here I am a handful of years later, and I haven’t thought about the words “autoimmune” or “lupus,” “IBS,” or “dysbiosis” as it relates to myself in quite a while.

Think about how you can shift the statements you make about your health. Catch yourself when you say what “you’ve always” said about your situation. Restate it in a less attached, or less in ownership, way.

Let the way you speak be a catalyst for how you think about your health.

*Note on the book pictured above: I don’t remember the plot. But I do remember it was part of my finding joy and rewiring how I thought about my health process.