Beans could not be healthier for us. They support heart health, lower cholesterol, are high in fiber and protein, and low in calories, and they’re affordable. So why aren’t people out there having parades in honor of this miracle food?! I have one word for you: Farts.
First of all, why do beans make you fart? Beans contain complex sugars known as oligosaccharides. These sugar molecules are too large to be absorbed into the intestinal wall in order to be used as energy by the body, and your gut does not have the enzymes at it disposal to be able to break down these sugars on its own. So instead, these bulky sugars pass through the small intestine and enter into the large intestine “as is”. The oligosaccharides are then met by the powerhouse population of bacteria that call your intestines home. It is made up of over 700 different species of bacteria that all serve a particular purpose with the goal of converting your food into bio available nutrients that can be absorbed into your bloodstream and then propagated throughout your body. This delivers specific ingredients to your organs which they then use in conjunction with ingredients that your body synthesizes itself. This process keeps your body happy and healthy.
But how do these little digestive warriors go about converting the oligosaccharides? Not that drastically different than when you first ate your bean dinner, they feed off of them in a process called fermentation, until they get smaller and broken into tinier parts known as short chain fatty acids. In the process of doing all this hard work, your bacteria essentially lets out little farts of their own made of mostly hydrogen and methane, but not without paying it forward in the form of those short chain fatty acids which are the favorite food of your colon cells. They serve as the primary energy source for your colon cells, are anti-inflammatory, and also have been shown to prevent colon cancer. Once again, beans prove to be rather miraculous! But unfortunately, many people avoid this remarkably healthy food because they don’t want to feel like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon is being guided down their own personal internal Broadway. And I get that. Gas build up can be painful and distracting.
But what if I told you that avoiding beans may actually be making your gas worse? Well, not to be a party pooper, but the data has shown in recent nutritional studies that we’re exploring our bodies interaction with the “magical fruit”.
What the studies reveal is that increased flatulence after eating legumes may have more to do with not eating enough beans on a consistent basis. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled, Effects of Bean Diets on Concentration of Carbon Dioxide in Flatus, revealed that during the first week of the study in which they had people on a regular diet of pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and navy beans, 35% reported increased flatulence initially. By week three, that percentage fell to 15%, 5% by week five, and 3% by week eight.
These findings align with what registered dietician and contributor to Health Magazine, Cynthia Sass has observed: “People who eat beans on a consistent basis experience less gas and bloating than people who consume them less often.” Public conventional wisdom wants to hang onto outdated research from the 1960’s, which only observed the short term aftereffects of incorporating beans into ones diet. Some doctors went so far as to recommend that their patiets avoid high fiber foods as much as possible. Nowadays however, we know the devastating effect this has on a person’s microflora and that this pattern only worsens chronic constipation and gas production.
Beans pack a healthful one-two punch in the form of soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is what “plumps up” and passes slowly through the digestive system helping you to feel more satiated, and insoluble fiber works like a ‘pipe-cleaner’ for your bowels while also giving your gut biome the kind of food that makes them healthy and happy. The two types of fiber together, along with plenty of hydration, help keep all of the waste your body needs to get rid of sliding right out in a healthy way.
If you aren’t used to eating a mostly plant or high fiber diet, you may initially experience a moderate increase in farts. But stick with it! If you do, you will begin to be less gassy, have better digestion, and be less bloated over all! This creates a domino effect of other benefits for your body as well, like lower blood pressure, weight loss, clearer skin, more energy, and less instances of illness. For all that goodness I think we can all agree that a week of farts is well worth it.
What we do recommend when you start your new healthy “bean” lifestyle is easing into it. Lentils, split peas and mung beans tend to produce less gas and are easier for the body to break down. This is pretty intuitive, given that these beans tend to cook much faster than other beans. Also, there are enzymes that you can supplement with that will help break down the indigestible sugars in the beans, which in turn, help your good bacteria convert them and thereby create less gas by-product.
In Japan, people cook beans with a type of seaweed called Wakame or Kombu that helps aid in their digestion. And in India, they will often cook beans with either ginger, turmeric, fennel, and/or asafetida for the same reasons.
There is research that shows that soaking and rinsing your beans may help to reduce gas, but the amount required to actually break down some of those sugars before digestion tends to leave the beans bland and flavorless. At that point, eating “no flavor bean paste” doesn’t seem worth it in order to avoid a few farts.
More importantly is to chew well! It seems obvious, and like the kind of advice your Grandma gave you when you were little, but it is essential. Your teeth and mouth are the first stop in your digestive system. There are enzymes in your saliva that aid digestion, and the more macerated your food is before you swallow makes every stop down the chain more effective. This means that those little guys in your gut don’t have to work as hard and therefore don’t create as much gaseous by-product that you’ll have to fart out later.
Beans are delicious, healthy, and definitely worth the transition period. And when you’re in the midst of a self-made dutch oven, just remember the wise observation attributed to Hippocrates, “Passing gas is necessary to well being.”