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. 

Beet and Banana Pancakes

Pancakes.

A food I had a love/hate relationship with for many years. But after realizing they don’t have to be glorified breakfast cake or particularly even eaten at breakfast (which also isn’t my go-to), I’ve fully embraced pancakes in all the wonderful ways. 

This version is just about as whole-food as you can get, with oats, beets, banana, eggs, and not a lot else. These days, I tend to add on greens and maybe an additional egg to make pancake meals a balanced meal.

Hope you enjoy!

One more big / little thing

I’ve decided to share most of my recipes in my newsletter going forward this year, rather than publishing all of them here on the blog portion of the website. If you enjoy regularly receiving recipes from me as well as focused nutrition topics, I encourage you to sign up to receive my nutrition newsletter.

Beet Banana Pancakes, serves 2

Inspired by David of Green Kitchen Stories
Prep:  40-60 minutes to roast beets (can be done ahead) | Cook: 15  minutes 

2 eggs
1 banana, peeled
1 cup /100 gr rolled oats
2 – 4 Tbs. filtered water, or more as needed
⅛ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
2 medium / 100 gr cooked beets
coconut oil or ghee for frying

To Serve:
1-2 tsp. olive oil
1-2 handfuls of greens
1 fried or scrambled egg, for each serving

  1. Prep ahead: Wash and halve the beets and wrap them in foil. Roast in a 400 degree F oven until soft, about 40 minutes. You can prepare more while you’re at for other meals or snacks. 
  2. To make Pancakes: Crack the eggs into a blender; add the banana, water, oats, salt and baking powder and blend until smooth. 
  3. Then pour into a bowl. Grate the cooked beets and add into the batter and stir through. 
  4. Heat a little oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. 
  5. Whisk the batter and thin it a little as needed, then pour in ⅓-½ cup amounts into the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes on each side. Repeat with the remaining batter. If planning to have some leftovers, reserve the unused batter, so you can cook and enjoy them fresh. 
  6. For the greens and eggs: Heat the remaining coconut oil, add a pinch of salt, and stir in the greens, and a splash of water if needed. Steam/sauté for a couple minutes until wilted. 
  7. Then fry or scramble one additional egg per serving
  8. Serve topped with a dollop of yogurt, molasses or applesauce, and with the fried egg and greens on the side. 

Broccoli Rice Bake

and a tip for taking care of digestion during the holidays and beyond

Before I get to the recipe below, there’s one little nutrition tip I want to share today that just about every one of us can use, especially during the holiday season. It’s simple – but can go a long way in terms of improving negative digestion symptoms, in addition to energy, having a steady appetite, clear skin, and focused thinking.

It’s that we should leave out habitually grazing or snacking throughout the day.

When we’re in a pattern of habitual grazing all day, or feeling constantly hungry or snacky, it’s often because we haven’t eaten enough at a previous meal. Or we’re eating for emotional comfort, or simply skipped a previous meal altogether. Or we’re doing those holiday gatherings that involve no real meal but constant “finger foods.”

In any of these cases, eating when the last meal hasn’t fully digested can put the body in a stressed state and leave us with indigestion, bloating, fluctuating energy levels, and a whole host of other symptoms. When we snack on the go or while distracted during our busy days, the same uncomfortable symptoms often occur.

But what about for athletes? I know many of you, like me, move your body a lot and need more food to be getting enough for your needs.

As endurance athletes doing daily workouts or training for an event, having a snack or two during the day is reasonable. But we should not feel constantly hungry, or hungry every hour or two.

Eating again before the last meal has finished digesting puts a lot of stress on the digestive system and it can’t do either job of processing the new food or assimilating the last meal effectively. This goes for everyone, regardless of whether you notice negative symptoms or not.

Aim to have snacks about four to six hours after your last meal has been eaten, and two to three hours before your next meal. This is the length of time it takes to fully digest your meals. For a person that is active less than an hour per day, three meals is usually plenty. For those who are more active, an eating schedule with a snack built in to get enough food might look like having breakfast at 7am, lunch between 11-12:00 pm, a snack around 3-4pm, and dinner between 6-7pm.

Do you feel worse when you constantly snack or graze throughout the day? I know I do. Try cutting all snacks or sticking to the above schedule for a week or two, and see how much better you feel.

Now, for something nourishing to eat during your actual meals. At least during one holiday of every year while growing up, there was my mom’s Broccoli Rice Casserole, which we all craved. Likely a holiday meal because it involved ingredients we didn’t eat any other time of the year (processed cheez whiz and instant rice), I have no idea when the tradition began, or when/if it ended, but we all enjoyed it.

Several years in to a dairy-free lifestyle, I tried upgrading the recipe to be based around whole foods and be dairy-free as a final project for one of my grad school cooking labs. Like most vegan / dairy-free recipes trying to mimic a cheesy taste, the result I got was trying too hard to stimulate all the taste buds with the nutritional yeast, miso, garlic, etc. combination of flavors, and I never really landed on a finished recipe that I wanted to remake year after year.

Then I stumbled upon the flavor/spice combination below while having a little creative session in the kitchen earlier this year. Without intending to, the result ended up being exactly what I was going for in the failed recipe revamp. And here we have it! A whole foods remake of the Broccoli Rice Casserole I loved from youth.

Broccoli Rice Bake

This is a far cry from, yet extremely reminiscent of the cheezy Broccoli Rice Casserole I grew up eating around the holidays. The combination of the spices, tahini and coconut milk seem like they’d yield a curry rice bake – but the result is actually far more subtle and more in line with the cheez whiz, instant rice, and cream of mushroom soup combination of childhood. It’s creamy, comforting, and a perfect addition to either a holiday or an everyday winter’s meal. 

Prep:  4-8 hours soaking (optional but recommended)   | Cook: 1.25-1.5 hours  | Serves: about 4

3 ½ cups (320 gr) chopped broccoli
1 cup (185 gr) brown rice (soaked for at least 4 hrs)
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground fenugreek seed
¼ tsp. ground fennel seed
1 ½ tsp. grounding masala spice blend or curry powder
2 tsp. minced fresh ginger root
3 Tbs. (45 gr) tahini
1 cup (240 ml) coconut milk*
2 1/2 cups (600 ml) water

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C ).
  2. Spread the broccoli out in a 9×9″ baking dish along with the soaked (and drained) rice. Set aside.
  3. Stir together the spices, fresh minced ginger, salt, and tahini into the coconut milk and  water. Pour over the vegetables and rice and mix. Then spread the mixture evenly, making sure that the broccoli and rice are submerged in the liquid. Cover with kitchen foil and bake for 45 minutes.
  4. Now discard the foil and increase the oven temperature to 430°F (220°C). Bake for a further 25-30 minutes, or until the broccoli and rice are cooked and the sauce starts to form a slight crust around the edges of the pan. It might look a bit softer than steamed rice consistency at this point, but will set up after removing from the oven.
  5. Let cool for about 10 minutes out of the oven before serving as a side dish.

Notes: Use canned coconut milk, the type used for cooking. Either lite or full-fat can be used but full-fat is preferred, and will result in a creamier texture and richer flavor. 
I’ve tested this a couple times in a larger, flatter 13×9″ baking pan. It still works, but the rice really benefits from a smaller, deeper pan so it can fully immerse and steam-bake, rather than dry out without fully cooking.