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. 

Simple Non-Dairy Hemp Seed Milk

Spurred on by the realization that I was contributing a lot of plastic to the landfill since they were no longer recyclable, I stopped buying cartons of non-dairy milk a couple years ago. When I stopped, I didn’t like the waste or the time it took to soak, blend, and filter nuts to make traditional homemade nut milk. So I began using raw nut butters, such as cashew, to make an easy DIY nut milk in a quick minute.

But in the last few months, I suddenly remembered another option that is arguably even easier and more accessible.

Hemp seeds!

Hemp seeds as a food product are often overlooked in the nut and seed category. But what they’ve got going for them is that they are highly digestible, especially compared to most other nuts and seeds. And they contain a truly optimal fatty acid profile, with a 3:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids (1). 

It’s important for us to eat a variety of fatty acid types from foods, but when it comes to the polyunsaturated fats which contain omega-6s and omega-3s, our modern diets tend to be less diverse and mainly have an abundance of omega-6s. 

The omega 6 fats are found in large amounts in soy, corn, safflower, sunflower and peanut oils, as well as sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, and nearly all nuts. 

In whole food form, omega 6 containing fats are healthy and essential, but need to be balanced with omega-3 fats such as freshly ground flax, chia, walnuts, hemp, and if you eat fish, wild caught cold-water fish such as salmon, halibut, anchovies, cod, and sardines. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3’s should be under 5:1 to be considered anti-inflammatory and for most individuals, this ratio is at least 20:1 or more in the daily diet.  

If you have an inflammatory condition such as a chronic gut health imbalance, autoimmune conditions, arthritis of any type, and/or you are an otherwise healthy athlete looking to improve recovery between workouts, eating an optimal balance of omega 3s and 6s can be incredibly helpful.

Adding hemp seeds, and this simple hemp milk, can be another way to do this.

One other note about hemp seeds: try not to boil the hemp milk or the seeds – since they contain more heat-sensitive omega 3s, the oils will break down and oxidize – becoming inflammatory – at higher than medium heat. 

Simple Non-Dairy Hemp Seed Milk
Prep:  5 minutes   | Makes: 4 cups

3 Tbs. hemp seeds
4 cups water, divided

  1.  Combine hemp seeds and 2 cups of water in a high-speed blender until smooth, about 1 minute. Then add in the remaining 2 cups of water and gently blend for a few seconds more. Pour into a quart jar with a lid and store in the fridge until ready to use.

NOTES: For a slightly richer milk, you can bump up the hemp seeds to use ¼ cup instead of 3 tablespoons.
If you have an extra large blender, add all 4 cups of liquid and blend, rather than separate them. I have a smaller blender and prefer to give it a smaller ratio of seed to liquid to blend well.

Other Recipes that Feature Hemp Seeds:

References:
1. Da Porto, C., Decorti, D., and Tubaro, F. (2011). Fatty acid composition and oxidation stability of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) seed oil extracted by supercritical carbon dioxide. Industrial Crops and Products, 36(1), 401–404. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.indcrop.2011.09.015

Buttercup Squash + Creamy Black Bean Tacos

I frequently share with nutrition clients about the connection between mental and physical health, particularly between the gut and brain, but also just a reminder that it’s all connected. We’re all connected. Something that’s been labeled “all in your head” is also in your body, and vice versa.

That’s the paradigm I work out of.

In my own life, I’ve had a long journey with things in the realm of “mental health;” in the last few years mostly related to low grade anxiety that can simply be summarized as high vata dosha in Ayurveda. So I try to balance myself with daily habits that invite in slowing down (physically and as a result mentally), practices that sooth my nervous system, and a practice of breathing and meditation that’s begun to infuse into my days.

For the last few weeks, I’ve felt like I really hit a flow with presence and slowing down my brain’s looping and too-quick thoughts.

I’d cracked the code! (haha, right).

Then over the weekend, I set out on the longest run of my current marathon training cycle. As I settled into the last hour of running, when my body was tired and my pace/effort was meant to get higher, my brain kicked in.

My brain kicked in in all the ways I’ve been working to slow my thoughts down or just observe them rather than let them dictate my actions.

The run wasn’t a failure. Today, a few days beyond it, I mostly feel really good about how it went physically. But I’m disappointed with how I coped and let my mind decide to take it easier than planned in that last hour when I’d prepared for and practiced something else.

I guess that’s why we call it a practice. A running practice. A meditation practice. A breathing practice.

In fact, my last conversation with my long-time naturopath who sadly moved away was on this very topic. She told me that if I wanted to keep running marathons, I was going to have to balance the running out with yoga. And she didn’t mean the physical asasa of yoga poses–although that can be helpful too! She meant that if I was going to continue the going fast of running, I needed to balance it out with the slowing down of practicing breathing, presence, and eating slowly and mindfully, to digest food well.

It’s safe to say I’ve made progress from where I was then. But I have not cracked the code of always getting it right. Nor will I.

We’re all works in progress but as reminder to you, and to myself, we rarely make linear progress.

This recipe for creamy black bean tacos with lightly baked and seasoned winter squash, a simple sliced cabbage and creamy sauce to drizzle over the top, is one of those many-years-in-progress, mind and body are all connected recipes. It’s truly delicious for your fall and winter taco nights.

But I also wouldn’t have been eating it a couple months ago, when my gut health had temporarily returned to a compromised phase – I had to do a bit more healing and re-balancing first to return to eating a “more complicated meal.” That’s all to say, if you’re still in an iffy-digestion state, save this one for a little later. And let’s see about getting your system working optimally first.

And if you’re like me and tend toward too-fast, scattered thoughts, I encourage you to keep up the practice of breathing and returning to presence. I’ll be right there with you.

A true fall and winter favorite, these tacos have all the elements of a balanced meal with the six tastes, and are prepared in a way that makes them easier on digestion. The black beans are next level flavorful when cooked from scratch into a creamy, easier to digest consistency.
Any type of full-flavored winter squash works for this recipe. That includes basically all varieties of winter squash commonly used for eating except spaghetti squash and delicata. See what you have available from your local farmers and try a couple new varieties! I used a super tasty variety called Burgess Buttercup.
Nearly all components of this can be prepped ahead and gently reheated if you want to turn this into a weeknight meal. Additionally, I’ve shortened the preparation time with the way I slice and bake the squash.

Prep:  overnight   | Cook: 3-4 hours (for beans); 45  minutes to finish  | Serves: about 4

1 medium buttercup squash, or similar variety (butternut or any hubbard variety of squash)
Pinch of mineral salt
½ tsp. smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning (without preservatives/fillers added)

3-4 cups of red and/or green cabbage, thinly sliced
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
1-2 Tbs. lime juice

Cooked black beans, see below
Cashew crema, see below
12 small corn tortillas (6”)
Cilantro, minced

Black Beans
½ pound /  1 cup black beans, soaked overnight
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
Water to cover by 3-4 inches

Cashew Crema
1/2 cup cashews, soaked for 4-8 hours or overnight
¼ tsp. garlic salt
1-2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
a pinch of ground turmeric and dash pepper
a pinch of ground cayenne, optional
1 Tbs. nutritional yeast, optional
½ cup water or more

  1. For the Black Beans: A few hours before or in the morning, cook soaked black beans in a medium pot in the spices and water until very soft and flavorful and creamy, almost to a refried bean consistency.
    This is best done for at least 3-4 hours, adding water as needed.
  2. For the Baked Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
    Slice your squash in half, and remove the seeds and pith. Then rub the salt and smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning onto the flesh of the squash.
    Then place the two squash halves in a large, rimmed baking pan (like 13×9-inch), with cut side down/skin facing up. Add water to about ⅓ of the way up the side of the squash and bake until completely soft when pierced with a fork. This will take about 30-4o minutes.
    Remove from the oven and allow to cool before slicing. The water should all be absorbed and the spices infused into the flesh.
  3. For the Cashew Crema: Drain and rinse the cashews.Put all the crema ingredients, except the water, in a high-speed blender or food processor and blend, adding water a little at a time until the desired consistency is reached.
  4. While the squash is baking, prepare the sliced cabbage. If your digestion is strong, you can thinly slice and dice the cabbage, stir in the salt and lime juice, and allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes to soften.
    If digestion is compromised, gently steam the cabbage instead, just until lightly soft. Then remove to a bowl or dish, add the salt, and lime juice.
  5. Heat the tortillas over high heat, in a clean cast iron skillet.Do this by working in batches, two tortillas at a time and heat for 30-60 seconds per side of each tortilla.
  6. To serve, spoon the black beans into each taco, followed by sliced squash pieces, cabbage, a pinch of minced cilantro, and then a drizzle of crema. Enjoy!

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.