Beans, you either love em' or hate em'. At least that's been my experience.
For some, beans digest without a problem. In fact, if that's you, they probably make you feel really good. And that's because beans are incredibly nutritious. They act as a prebiotic to nourish your gut bacteria, contain many antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, & they're packed with fiber which helps to move things along, regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol, & leave us feeling fuller longer.
I'd argue that beans are a superfood for most of us.
But for others, beans might not be your best friend. This was me for years. If you've struggled with digestive issues, whether it's chronic bloating, distention, pain after eating, or relentless gas, you may have noticed that beans could be triggering some of your symptoms. I'd probably guess that garlic & onions are up there too.
Here's the thing though, we really can't blame the food. For starters, there are many possible reasons why you may be experiencing gas or bloating after eating certain foods, which is why I'd encourage you to work with a practitioner to get to the root cause of your symptoms.
Secondly, there are a few steps we can take now to make these foods easier for the body to digest. They're not hard, they just require a little extra planning, but in the long run, can save you A LOT of discomfort.
why are beans so hard to digest?
Beans are plants & plants are smart. Their purpose is to survive & reproduce, not to be easily broken down & essentially, destroyed. This is quite literally the opposite of their goal in life... so, they're going to put up a fight. Which, you gotta respect.
They do this by creating defense mechanisms. Unfortunately for humans, these defenses can interfere with our ability to digest & absorb the beneficial nutrients beans contain. We call these barriers anti-nutrients.
In the case of beans, these include lectins, phytic acid, & enzyme inhibitors.
Although these compounds are not well-loved by the human body, there are 3 things we can do to the beans to mitigate the effects of these naturally occurring anti-nutrients & increase our ability to access the plant's nutrients:
Soak - what we're unpacking today
what happens when you soak beans?
Essentially, we're breaking down the defense mechanisms that can cause so many uncomfortable symptoms. And when those barriers are gone, it's much easier for our bodies to access the vitamins, minerals, & antioxidants that beans provide. We're taking food & enhancing its nutritional value.
But, let's get more specific.
Improved digestibility: Soaking beans initiates the germination process, a fancy term that means we're breaking down the complex carbohydrates & reducing the levels of anti-nutrients. Phytic acid, for example, binds to minerals like calcium, zinc, & iron, making them less available for our bodies to use - not such a great thing. By soaking beans, we activate the enzyme phytase which helps to break down phytic acid, making minerals more bioavailable & improves the food's overall digestibility.
Reduced lectin levels: Lectins are a type of protein that bind to carbohydrates, often found in plant foods. They too are another type of anti-nutrient that can interfere with nutrient absorption & cause some of those stubborn symptoms beans may create. When we soak beans in water, they begin to moisturize & swell. This is the start of that germination process, working to break down those carbohydrates lectins are bound to. By reducing the lectin levels, beans can become a little nicer on the digestive system.
Less gas & bloating: Beans are infamous for causing gas & bloating, largely due to their indigestible sugars. They have complex sugars called oligosaccharides that our bodies can struggle to fully digest. These sugars can move through our digestive system undigested until they reach the large intestine, where bacteria ferment them, leading to gas & bloating. Soaking beans initiates the breakdown of these sugars which can help prevent gas & bloating from happening altogether.
Better nutrient absorption: Soaking not only decreases the presence of anti-nutrients but also activates enzymes that facilitate the breakdown of proteins & carbohydrates. Phytase is an example that was mentioned above. These enzymes increase the availability of essential nutrients so your body can absorb a higher percentage of vitamins & minerals found in beans. Essentially, we're kickstarting this breakdown process long before putting food into our mouths. This makes it much easier for your body to finish breaking them down.
Shortened cooking time: There's no doubt that soaking beans requires a little extra planning, but by letting them soak for 8-12 hours, which can easily be done overnight, you'll accelerate the cooking process. Softened beans require less time on the stove, speeding up the process of actually a making meal.
So we've covered why soaking beans can help our digestion, but what about the process of cooking them? There's a benefit here too. Soaking beans can reduce the time needed to actually cook your meal. When beans are soaked, their overall cooking time is shortened, quite convenient if you don't want to spend an hour in the kitchen! Yes, it'll require more planning, but this can be as little as setting a reminder the night before to soak your beans.
so, how do I soak the beans?
To maximize the benefits, I recommend following a few simple steps.
Choose your dried bean: Different beans have different soaking times, I've seen anywhere from 4-48 hours. Honestly, I'm lazy & don't want to remember each bean's minimum soak time, so I stick to an 8-12-hour soak. This makes it easy for me to soak them overnight, or first thing in the morning. Generally speaking, the longer you let them soak, the more digestible beans will become, but as someone who's had pretty bad digestive issues, I can say that 8-12 hours has been enough for me to feel a difference.
Prep: Rinse the beans thoroughly under running water then place the rinsed beans in a large bowl. Add enough water to cover them completely. The beans will absorb a significant amount during the soaking process so you'll want to make sure there is plenty of water. For example, if you're soaking 1 cup of beans, use about 2 1/2 cups of water.
Key step: Add an acidic ingredient to the water, 1 Tbsp per 1 cup of beans is enough to do the job. This helps to break down the sugars / complex carbohydrates in beans that can be tough to digest. I use apple cider vinegar but lemon juice or another type of vinegar would work fine too.
Rest: Cover the bowl with a clean cloth & store it in a cool location that's out of the way - they'll be resting here for a while.
Drain: Once they've had their soak, again, I recommend 8-12 hours, drain the beans & toss the water. Rinse the beans under cool running water to clean them.
Cook: Transfer them to a pot, add fresh water, a pinch of sea salt (I usually do 1/2 tsp per 1 cup), & bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that forms on the surface & reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the beans until they're tender but not mushy, usually about 30 minutes to an hour depending on the variety - be sure to keep an eye on them & test them with a fork.
Enjoy: When they're soft, drain the cooked beans & let them cool. From here, you can eat them as is or incorporate them into a favorite recipe! Whether you use them in soups, salads, or as a side dish, your body will be able to digest beans with greater ease & actually absorb their wonderful nutrients!
As you can see, getting into the habit of soaking beans can enhance your digestion & alleviate common digestive issues. I can personally speak to this. Beans were out of my life for almost 3 years because I didn't know that I could eat them without feeling like crap. If you're in a similar boat, know that with a few simple steps, you can slowly begin to reintroduce beans into your life.
When you do, I'd caution you to start slow. We're talking a few tablespoons max. Beans are high in fiber regardless of soaking, so they can cause mild bloating when you first start adding them into your diet. As you continue having them regularly, your body will adapt & those symptoms should go away with the help of soaking.
One last thing - if you've been struggling with digestive issues for some time, I'd encourage you to reach out to someone who can help you get to the root cause. Something else may be going on that needs to be looked at.
If that sounds like you, or you're curious to learn more about supporting your gut, send me an email! I currently have 2 spots available starting this month.
Thanks for stopping by & reading! I hope you too can enjoy beans symptom-free.
Holistic Nutritionist, CSCS