Cooking Beans Without Gastric Distress

I need the vegetarian protein, but how can I get rid of the gas?

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I started to become vegetarian (vegan, actually) about six months ago, and I've been eating mostly beans for vegetarian protein, because they're cheap and low fat. There's only one problem.

Beans give me terrible gastric distress, which is really embarrassing. I like being a vegetarian, and I need the protein, but how can I get rid of the gastric distress from eating beans? Thanks! - E. B.

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Dear E. B.,

Lots of new and not-so-new vegetarians have this problem! There are four factors at work in your gastric distress:

  1. Your digestive system
  2. What kind of beans and how much
  3. How the beans are cooked
  4. Foods combined with the beans

Your digestive system: You haven't been a vegetarian very long, and I don't know your previous eating habits and state of digestion. But, when you make any kind of major dietary change, your digestion takes time to adapt.

Fiber: As a vegetarian or vegan, you're probably eating a lot more fiber, which acts as a broom to clean out the accumulated garbage from your digestive tract, tending to make you a public nuisance. Beans are a high fiber food. E.G. 1/2 cup of cooked pinto beans has 7 - 8 grams of fiber, compared with chicken or meat, which have no fiber.

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What kind of beans and how much? Some beans are easier to digest than others, but it's a very individual thing. Try different ones to see what agrees with you the best.

Pinto beans, black-eyed peas, black beans, mung beans and adzuki beans are relatively benign. Indian pulses, such as split mung beans (mung dhal), or red lentils (masoor dhal) are easy to digest.

Navy beans, soy beans, kidney beans, chick peas, green or yellow split peas may be harder to digest than other legumes. As to how much beans to eat, they're nutrition powerhouses, and a little goes a long way. 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked is the average serving size.

Cooking Beans: In my experience, beans should always be cleaned, rinsed, then soaked, whether or not they are pressure cooked. Soaking loosens the skins, and releases the gas causing agent (oligosaccherides).

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How long you soak depends on the age and size and hardness of the bean, but they all should double in size, and be smooth. Chick peas, black beans, kidney beans and navy beans should be soaked 12 - 24 hours.

Quick Soak: Bring beans to a boil in unsalted water, skim the foam if any, then remove from heat, cover and soak until wrinkle free and doubled in size. This method doesn't work as well as long soaking in cold water for reducing gas, or for thorough bean cooking, but it beats no soaking!

When cooking beans, discard the soaking water, and use fresh. Bring to a boil, skim the foam, and boil ten minutes uncovered. Again, this loosens the skins, and releases gas creating sugars (oligosaccherides).

Gas Relieving Additions: Add a few fennel seeds, a slice of ginger, a bay leaf, or a strip of kombu (sea vegetable). These make beans more digestible and relieve gas. Try eating cultured foods which contain probiotics with beans, to help balance your digestive system - yogurt for example or cultured coconut milk.

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Note about canned beans: Always drain and rinse them before eating because the liquid is very salty. Canned beans are more likely to cause gastric distress than those you cook yourself, because they're not cooked the same, and they're not fresh.

Foods combined with beans: Beans go down better combined with other foods. For example, burritos with whole wheat tortillas, cooked rice, refried beans, shredded cheese. Rice and wheat with beans is a good trio.

Spicing makes beans much easier to digest. That's because herbs and spices are packed with vitamins, trace minerals, and natural pharmaceuticals which alter the chemistry of food. Good ones for beans and lentils are fennel, coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric (for chick peas, and Indian dhals), paprika, asoefetida, cayenne, black pepper, and salt. Herbs such as thyme, bay leaf, basil, rosemary, marjoram, oregano, and cinnamon stick are also good. Consult recipes for proportions. Or experiment, but go easy until you hit on agreeable combinations and amounts.

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More bean eating tips:

1. Drink lots of water, especially first thing in the morning, also herbal teas, fruit juice, plus eat plenty of sweet, juicy fresh fruit to help clean your digestive tract.

2. Exercise regularly. Yoga is wonderful for digestion. So are walking, bicycling, and swimming.

3. Eat beans only with your main meal, which should be lunch because that's when your digestion is strongest. Have something light for supper, and try not to eat late, to give your digestion a rest.

4. Eat beans in soups and stews. The additional liquid seems to help.

5. When you're a new vegetarian, your digestion may not be able to keep up with your vegetarian ideals. If you're having severe distress, give yourself a break. Have an egg or cottage cheese or a few nuts, instead of beans. If you need to, have chicken or fish a few times a week for a while.

Judith Kingsbury, Savvy Vegetarian

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