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 simplest sourdough flatbread, and what probiotics and gut microbes have to do with it

“Why are you people always switching out sour cream for yogurt in all your recipes?”
This was the question I was asked a few weeks ago while teaching a (virtual) cooking store tour. The question had me pausing because it was so good and to be honest, I’m surprised no one has ever asked me before. I paused also because it’s been so many years since I’ve actually eaten sour cream – and years too since my yogurt-in-every-meal days.

So why do nutritionists and health-minded persons tend to switch out sour cream and add yogurt at every opportunity? Without jumping too deep into the science at first glance, I think we can look towards long histories of fermented foods in virtually all traditional ways of eating around the world. Our ancestors were fermenting foods in all sorts of ways for better health and as a way of food preservation. Yogurt products—whether they are dairy-based or non-dairy—all have the same culture of bacteria added, and as most of us have learned from countless yogurt advertisements, it’s good for gut health. Plain old sour cream, and other creamy dairy foods, can’t generally say the same.


Fiber Nourishes Your Gut – Prebiotics

What we’ve learned in the science and nutrition community over the last couple decades is that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. Our digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiota or microbiome. These bacteria live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with us. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through the large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as N-Butyrate. That’s a good thing.

When we eat fibrous plant-foods, we are essentially feeding many species of beneficial bacteria from the fiber that we ourselves cannot digest. And when we don’t eat the foods that beneficial bacteria need, we lose harmony and balance between beneficial and disruptive bacteria, and dysbiosis occurs. Often with all sorts of negative symptoms that we experience. This beneficial fiber-rich food is what we’ll often call ‘pre-biotics.’


A healthy gut microbiome can protect us against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria competes for space in the intestines, blocking the bad guys from establishing a strong community. Beneficial bacteria can also help us absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine also plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. Butyrate, the short chain fatty acid I mentioned above, has been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrown of bacteria in the small intestine, having ample beneficial bacteria in the colon is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 70% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes in 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. 


Fermented Foods and Probiotics

On the flip side of the prebiotic/fiber-rich food equation is a term we’ve all heard. Probiotics. That stuff that makes yogurt and other fermented and/or bacteria-containing foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, raw vinegar, raw honey, and (traditional) sourdough bread health-promoting. Probiotic-rich foods essentially mean we’re eating the beneficial bacteria rather than feeding the good bacteria we already have.

When to Supplement

Probiotic supplements, especially in high doses, are often extremely helpful for individuals with an autoimmune flare, food or environmental allergies, metabolic concerns, hormone imbalance, skin health, cognitive and/or mental health, long-term and/or frequent antibiotic use, and of course, any sort of symptom that’s related to negative digestion—which tends to be a precursor to many of the other health challenges. When we’re using probiotics that occur naturally in fermented foods, we’re trying to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in our system (not just our gut either, our skin and many other areas of the body also have a microbiome). But when we’ve been in a pattern of long-term distress, we often need a little help from more bacteria than we can ingest through food. So a supplement might be necessary—ideally one of a reputable brand and with strains and quantities of bacteria that are scientifically founded for the symptoms or imbalance.



Going back to that question I received about sour cream and yogurt. I don’t tend to push a lot of yogurt as a preferred probiotic food source. Many individuals don’t tolerate dairy at all and the dairy industry is sadly pretty corporate and non-supportive of small producers these days. If you tolerate dairy products, and can source from a small dairy producing yogurt from grass-fed cows, then yes, it can be healthful. And while non-dairy yogurts contain some bacteria cultures, they often don’t provide much else in the way of protein or micronutrients. Flavored varieties of all types of yogurt are problematic due to all the other added ingredients, such as fillers, gums, sweeteners, and preservatives. Instead, I definitely encourage choosing a range of all the bacteria-containing foods.

One of my favorites is whole-grain sourdough. If you need a home project this fall and winter, starting your own sourdough mother (and naming it), will be immensely rewarding. My sourdough mother’s name is Esmerelda. Even if you’re not a baker. The flatbread below has become one of my five-minute favorites as a bready lunch side when I’m short on pre-made options, and with just the mother, you never actually have to launch off into sourdough baking (but I certainly recommend it if you’re ready for a next step).

Enjoy!

Dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I previously shared about the nervous system’s role, and the immune system leading to inflammation and food reactions, a tip to support impaired digestion and absorption in part four, and I’ll explain remaining topics of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Simple Sourdough Flatbread, makes 1
This is the absolutely simplest flatbread made from the sourdough mother. It’s rich and delicious, tastes bready and substantial, and can be flavored in many ways beyond the simple (plain) way I’ve made it. For a few more ideas, see this video which was the original that clued me into this delicious bread idea. For a larger amount, just use more starter. If you do not have a sourdough starter, I made mine from Baking Magique’s instructions. Instead of a mix of buckwheat and brown rice flour, my starter is 100 percent buckwheat. It keeps feeding Esmerelda super simple that way.

70 grams / ~1/2 cup sourdough starter
a little oil for your pan

  • Heat a medium to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little oil of choice, such as olive or coconut oil.
  • Pour your measured sourdough starter directly onto the pan and with a rubber spatula, gently spread it out so it’s smooth. Cook for about 3-4 minutes; then flip and cook 3-4 minutes more. You might need to turn your pan down a little, as this bread is slightly thick and you want to make sure you cook it all the way through.
  • Remove from pan, and add to your meal. I often eat it as a side like naan, but sometimes use it as a base for random other toppings that I have on hand for a quick lunch.

Winter Tabbouleh and How Fiber Helps Support your Health — and Hunger

In the health, wellness, and fitness community, we often hear all about the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates). Yet, a nutrient that’s incredibly beneficial to our health is far less mentioned. That’s fiber.

Fiber is best known to keep you regular or prevent constipation, but there are many more benefits. In the athletic community, the one that comes to mind first is helping to relieve that ‘hungry all the time’ feeling that often comes with heavier training loads. Next is gut health, lowering disease risk, and helping to regulate the body’s use of sugars.

Dietary fiber consists of the non-digestible carbohydrates from components of plants. The human body does not make the types of enzymes needed to break the bonds in these fibers, so they pass through relatively intact.

Fiber is found in most plant foods, primarily vegetables and whole grains, as well as nuts, seeds, and fruit. There are two types of fiber— soluble and insoluble.  Both are beneficial to our health.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel-like consistency that slows down digestion. Ever had chia pudding or chia in a smoothie and felt full and satisfied for hours? That’s the soluble fiber at work.
Soluble fiber also helps slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream so blood sugar levels remain more stable. Food sources include chia, psyllium, flax and other seeds and nuts, oats and oat bran, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body. It is helpful for clearing out the buildup of undigested food and environmental and metabolic toxins in the digestive system as it moves through. Insoluble fiber also helps get the digestive system moving and eliminate any constipation. (Side note: constipation is not just having difficulty having a bowel movement. That’s the extreme. It also refers to spending more than just a couple minutes on the toilet, passing hard, dry, small pieces, failing to eliminate daily, and transit time beyond 12-24 hours.) Now that we’ve got that cleared up, insoluble fiber can be found in whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, brown rice, farro wheat, beans, and fruits and vegetables.

Fiber Nourishes Your Gut

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiome. They live in an (ideally) 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.

A healthy gut microbiome can protect you against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria compete for space in the intestines, literally out-populating the bad bugs from taking hold. It can also help you absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. What’s more, Butyrate has also been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

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. Prolonged problems here are part of the pathophysiology of autoimmune diseases. 

Fiber Keeps You Feeling Full Longer – Read this again during your next heavy training cycle!

Because fiber is so difficult for your body to break down, it stays in your gastrointestinal tract longer compared to simple carbohydrates like table sugar. Having food in your system helps you feel full longer. This is partly why eating an apple is better than 100% apple juice (stripped of fiber), which is then better than apple-flavored juice (stripped of all nutrients). We even have studies showing that diets rich in high-fiber whole foods help reduce the perception of hunger. This is good information if you experience the “hungry all the time” feeling during heavy training cycles when you’re actually eating enough.

How much do we need?

Research has found that hunter-gathers ate a large quantity of fiber compared to modern humans, upwards of 100g of fiber per day. The average American has around 10-15g per day, and the US Dietary Reference Intake is around 25-38g of dietary fiber per day – which is well above that of the average person –but easily achieved by gradually increasing plant-foods in the daily routine. Can we consume too much? Yes, that is possible. Too much fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea (which is also caused by many other factors).

Caveats

Some therapeutic diets eliminate fiber-rich carbohydrates temporarily with the aim of improving long-term health and shifting the microbial population. For example, this is the purpose of the low FODMAP diet for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and the candida protocol. Individuals who try an extreme low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet also do so with the intention of improving health –often by way of improving the body’s response to sugars. But what’s commonly left out of the conversation is that all of these diets are meant to be temporary, because they all come with long-term negative health consequences such as eliminating all those beneficial bacteria that feed on fiber.

One more thing, we often hear the advice to reduce fiber in the days before a big athletic race, or eat ‘quick sugars’ in the few hours before athletic activity. This advice largely depends on the person, since just like we can train our bodies, we can also train our gut. Some of my best marathons were run after eating my routine high-fiber dinner and breakfast. I’ll delve more into this topic soon! 😊

Summary: Dietary fiber is an essential nutrient required for proper digestion of foods, proper functioning of the digestive tract, and for helping you feel full. A deficiency of fiber can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids, and elevated levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. Conversely, an excess of fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea. Individuals who increase their intake of fiber should do so gradually since this internal adjustment is going to adjust the populations of beneficial (and not so beneficial) microbial species in the lower GI –and thus might initially come with uncomfortable symptoms.

Now that we’ve got our daily dose of nutrition wisdom, let’s eat! William labeled me the queen of grain salads the other night after presenting this dish. It’s a seasonal variation on a plethora of other fiber rich tabbouleh-like grain salads in the recipe archives of this space –and one I’m really favoring right now for the bright colors, balance of slightly sweet and savory, and all in one dish for dinner. I routinely use millet or quinoa, but used both in this version. We had a stockpile of pumpkins in our house from last season’s harvest which I’ve by now mostly used up, but I noticed at our local farmers market last weekend that winter squash and pumpkins are still going strong—locally we tend to have them until mid to late March. If they’re less available near you, swap them out for some other seasonal vegetable – or leave out completely.


Winter Tabbouleh, serves 4-6
1 small pumpkin or winter squash (about 2 cups cubed)
1 cup millet or quinoa or a combination of both
2 cups water or vegetable broth
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup cilantro
½ cup mint
3 green onions
¼ cup walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
¼ cup goji berries
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1-2 handfuls spinach or other greens, optional
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Cook millet by combining with 2 cups of water or broth, along with the cinnamon, in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook until the liquid is completely absorbed, 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Place the squash cubes on a baking sheet with a little water. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the squash is soft. Alternatively, you can bake the squash whole until soft, then peel off the skin and chunk into pieces. This is my preferred quick-prep-ahead method lately.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the garbanzos, cilantro and mint, gojis, toasted walnuts, cooked squash and green onions. Then add the millet and spinach greens and give it all a good stir. Finish it off with the apple cider vinegar, honey, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.