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Please Don't Sing Me that Song Again! (You know, the one about beans, beans...)



by Susan Fekety, RN, MSN, CNM



This is the time of year when thoughts turn to the dry and magical, the harvest-pieces to be borne on into the winter. In the kitchen, my eyes fall on my companions from the bean family.

Do you have a jar of these sitting in your cooking space, looking earthy and filled with potential? Didn't you buy them one day when you were flush with an intention to feed yourself really well? Beans rock. (In fact, they are now officially "fab," as their scientific family name has changed from Leguminosae to Fabaceae. Why do they do this? How do we cope?)

When I develop a therapeutic nutrition program, it almost always includes at least one daily serving of beans. People ask me – are you serious? Do I have to eat them? And of course, I say yes, and begin the wooing. Festively colored and varied, I suggest folks consider black beans, kidney beans, soybeans, adzuki, peas, black-eyed peas, lentils, cannelinis, navies, garbanzos, limas, pintos, or favas; usually just a half a cup a day for novices. Hummus counts, and edamame at the sushi bar, and sweet peas.

"Oh, I suppose I can do that," they sigh. One client's husband refers to her food plan as "the bean diet." (I count peanuts in with nuts, though they are really legumes . . . I mean fabaceas.)

There's truth to that song, you know. Beans are inexpensive, versatile, and satisfying to eat. They're the highest-protein vegetable on the planet, and provide super-slow digesting, low blood-sugar impact carbohydrates. Hardly anyone is allergic to beans. They're loaded with B vitamins, which your body needs for energy production and DNA replication, and they are a bounty of soluble fiber. Found in many plant foods, this stuff is different from the mechanical clean-you-out INsoluble fiber you probably think of when you hear the term "roughage." Soluble fiber offers nutrients for the cells of your gastrointestinal tract, and it also feeds your friendly bacteria. It's anti-inflammatory and supports your immune system, the majority of which is in your gut, in case you didn't know. Best to tend well your immune system as we head into winter, yes? For diabetics and people with heart disease risk, beans are just about the perfect food.

Speaking of fiber, I have to laugh when I look at the amounts of fiber in commercial fiber supplements my clients come in using. Adults are supposed to get oh, 25-30 grams a day, with no upper limit. Many Americans are lucky to get half that – although some indigenous people on traditional diets get closer to 100 grams. But check out fiber supplements in the drugstore: a typical serving size has like, 3 grams of fiber. I mean, why bother?

Many health media sources push "whole grains, whole grains, get three or more servings of whole grains daily for fiber." Um, puh-lease! Leaving aside for the moment the problems many people have regulating their blood sugar when they eat lots of grain-based foods, examine just about any non-commercial list of "high fiber foods" and I predict you are not going to be zeroing in on the whole wheat bread! Yes, it's better than white bread – but still, most grains offer only about a third of the fiber that you'd find in a modest serving of beans. While I would concede that people who eat whole grain foods are probably "healthier" than those who pick Wonder Bread, I'd also point out that people who choose beans instead, well, now THERE'S a group optimizing nutrition!

Of course, I get feedback. Beans surprise people, and I often have to midwife them through the transition to this powerhouse vegetable. Some beans give some people gas. But not all beans, and not everybody!

Beans contain varying amounts of unique carbohydrate molecules called oligosaccharides, which must be broken down by a particular digestive enzyme. The human digestive tract doesn't make it. Avast, you might ask yourself – is this yet another food for which humans are biologically unsuited? How ever did our ancestors survive before Beano?

Let me assure you that a fix is available, orchestrated by your body and the planet, working together, once again. (What's the problem with flatulence, anyway? It's normal to pass anywhere from a couple cups to a quart and a half of gas a day. If you ever have abdominal surgery, you'll celebrate the first gas you pass and so will your nurse, for it's a concrete indicator of the return of healthy intestinal functioning. But I digress.)

The healthy bacteria that normally populate your gut (I love that word) are experts at breaking down those bean carbohydrates (and various gases are produced when they do so.) Used to be that we all had a lot of these healthy bacteria living within us and we didn't need a whole aisle in the Rite Aid for digestive disorders. Lately, particularly in modern industrialized countries, we are way short on these guys. Supplements containing the probiotics (take a moment to parse that word, please: pro, in favor of; biotic, life) Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, etc, are a growth industry right now, and that's great. If you tell me that beans make you toot, I will applaud you for probably having a nice population of the friendly gut bacteria, which should be considered your precious companions – and for being kind enough to feed them well.

So please, if you are an individual who has (ahem) challenges with beans – be patient, and eat them consistently. Often, an exuberant intestinal response to increasing beans in the diet is transient, and balances out in a short time to the point where you don't notice it anymore (and neither do your friends.)

Slow down and chew your food, because your saliva contains some of the enzymes with which you digest the sugars in beans (and everything else! We eat way too fast!)

The way you cook your beans can also make a difference to your later experience of them. Soaking dry beans overnight before cooking them, and/or cooking them with a leaf of kombu seaweed or a carrot in the water, will help break down the oligosaccharides before the beans get to you.

Many folks find they have less trouble with canned beans than the ones they prepare themselves from the dried state. These are certainly convenient; just be sure to rinse the starchy salty can-goop off them before you use them. Many traditional bean recipes contain carminative herbs and spices that help you digest beans, too; Mexican epazote, caraway seeds, cumin, thyme, dill.

This is making me hungry on a chilly (chili?) day . . . hmm, where ARE those black beans, anyway?




Article © Copyright 2008 by Susan Fekety. All rights reserved worldwide. Duplication or reprints only with express permission of the author or, for a nonprofit purpose, without consent so long as the author's name and contact information are included as follows: "Reproduced with permission from Susan Fekety," These articles are provided for informational purposes only. Their content is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own health care professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem promptly contact your health care provider.




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