The summer months are a great time to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy in favor of a more plant-based diet — yes that means beans too — for several reasons:
- Meat is harder to digest on the hot summer days and sits like a brick in the stomach;
- The produce section is colorful and overflowing;
- The farmer’s markets are bustling; and
- Smaller, fresher meals of veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds, and of course, beans and legumes are easier to digest in the summer heat.
As “America’s Gut Doctor” and a longtime student of nutrition, I can say with confidence that beans are one of the most underrated superfoods. As you’ll learn in this blog, they have some incredible benefits for your gut and the rest of your body. But despite their nutritional profile and tastiness, I know many of you avoid beans due to digestive distress (i.e. farts), oftentimes in the form of excessive gas that can threaten to ruin an otherwise lovely day, evening, or even keep you awake at night. And no one wants their spouse, kids or partner complaining about their “stink bomb”! [Been there; done that!] But avoiding beans entirely isn’t the only solution, which is why this week, I want to dive into the benefits of the most magical food — and how you can have your beans and eat them too.
What are the Benefits of Beans?
For all you “Plant Paradox” readers ready to live a life devoid of beans and legumes, I’d hate to say it, vilifying them is only part of the story. We’ll get to the dark side of beans next, but first let’s consider their benefits (backed by science).
When it comes to beans, there are a lot of “pros” to consider. For one, they are high in fiber, which means they keep you full and keep you regular. They are also high in fermentable fiber, which is what your gut bacteria feed off of, which means beans can help you support a robust immune response and support gut microbiome diversity over time. Even though I wrote fiber may not be the most important food nutrient in “What is the Best Diet for Gut Health?”, it’s still a very important component of a gut-healthy diet. Without enough fiber, you don’t support the production of bacterial metabolites, like short-chain fatty acids, which have been linked to blood sugar issues, obesity, and metabolic issues.
Beans are also high in plant-based protein, which is not only good for the environment, but also particularly important for those of you on a vegan or vegetarian diet. You’ll often hear that together, beans and rice are a complete protein. This means that when combined, they contain all 9 essential amino acids — the building blocks of proteins that are crucial for dozens of bodily processes… anything from building muscle to creating antioxidants to healing wounds to regulating metabolism. Beans and legumes can also contain other nutrients that aren’t present in many other foods. For example, black beans are high in magnesium — known as nature’s “relaxation” mineral — with 60 milligrams in just half a cup. One cup of black beans also contains 14 grams of protein, 16 grams of fiber, and 4.5 milligrams of iron.
Beans have been studied extensively for their health properties:
- A study showed that people who consume beans regularly are less likely to die of a heart attack
- A 2016 study found that chemicals in some black beans could slow the growth of colorectal cancer by preventing cancer cells from multiplying.
- One study showed that adding a cup of legumes to the diet of people with type 2 diabetes could reduce blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the main benefits of beans is their affordability and convenience. You can easily get canned or dried beans in virtually any grocery store for an extremely affordable price. These facts are what really push beans and legumes to the top of my list of under appreciated superfoods. However, don’t mistake convenience for health benefits. Just because beans can be bought in a can or purchased dried by the pound doesn’t mean they should be consumed without some accommodations. Let’s talk lectins!
What’s the Deal with Lectins — Should We Avoid Them?
After reading the above, you might wonder why beans aren’t praised more often. Unfortunately, in recent years it’s become trendy to vilify a type of compound found in most beans, called lectins. And admittedly, high-lectin foods (which are mainly foods like beans and legumes, grains, and nightshade vegetables) can cause bloating, cramping, and stomach pains in some people. Lectins are also known as “anti-nutrients” which means they inhibit the absorption of other key nutrients. Animal and cell studies show that active lectins can interfere with how your body absorbs minerals, especially calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.
Consuming too many lectins can leave you vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. Last year around this time, I did a three-part blog series called the Lectin Paradox, where I explained that the lectin debate is way more nuanced than other experts would leave you to believe. In those blogs, I explain that the solution to the lectin issue isn’t as simple as avoiding all lectins — if you did, you’d miss out on some of the planet’s most amazing foods and all of their other health benefits. Instead, it’s all about figuring out the lectin content of different beans and strategizing your consumption accordingly. And luckily, I’ve gone through the trouble for you. Below, you’ll find a list of the most digestible beans to the least based on their lectin content and other properties.
What Beans Are the Easiest to Digest?
Listed here from the  Least Easily Digested to  Most Easily Digested:
- Red Kidney Beans* These beans can be extremely high in lectins and are best avoided entirely, especially if you have a lectin issue.
- White Kidney Beans
- Lima Beans
- Black Beans
- Pinto Bean
- Black-Eyed Peas
- Adzuki Beans
- Mung beans
But just knowing the lectin content of beans and which ones to avoid or eat is not enough. There are ways we can make beans more easily digestible and gut-friendly, starting with sprouting, soaking, and pressure-cooking. Let’s dive into it some more.
Can You Have Your Beans and Eat Them Too?
The short answer to the question above – “Can you have your beans and eat them, too?” — is YES, you can! The truth is that you don’t have to avoid beans entirely because of their lectin content. In fact, if you avoid the top five gut mistakes people make when eating beans (and instead, listen to my advice on how to eat beans the gut-friendly way) you can enjoy beans fully.
5 Gut Mistakes People Make When Eating Beans + How to Do It Right
Avoid these common mistakes to make the most out of beans…
1. Buying the least digestible beans
As we learned earlier, not all beans are created equally. Beans like kidney beans and soybeans have a higher content of lectins and are more likely to cause digestive distress. That’s not to say you can’t eat them, but if you’re wanting to bring beans into your life in a gut-friendly way, start with the most digestible beans on the graphic above. And always avoid any genetically modified beans, like soybeans, which are commonly GMO.
How to do it right: Start with lentils and mung beans, which are known as the most digestible beans. And definitely avoid the red kidney bean. But before you, keep reading below to learn more ways to make beans gut-friendly.
2. Eating too many at one sitting
Even if you’re starting with low-lectin beans, it’s a good idea to follow the age-old saying “start low and go slow.” This is especially true if you’re not already eating beans regularly and you’re not sure how you might react to them.
How to do it right: Start with half a cup of easily digestible beans and see how you feel. If you’re eating a higher lectin bean, you might want to start with an even smaller serving size. When it comes to lectins, it’s often the quantity that pushes people over the threshold into digestive distress.
3. Not buying soaked and sprouted beans
One of the best ways to make beans more digestible is by soaking them overnight or sprouting them, just like you do with some nuts and seeds.
How to do it right: You can soak beans overnight by placing them in a container and adding baking soda and water. Then, drain, rinse, and cook the beans like you normally would (see cooking times below). To sprout them, keep them in a sprouting jar (like this one) to drain. Rinse two to three times daily. They will be ready in two to four days when the sprout becomes about one-fourth of an inch. Dry completely (you can do this by laying them on a paper towel in the sun or putting them in the oven on warm and placing them on a baking sheet for an hour or so) and you can store them in your refrigerator for about three days. If this feels like a hassle, you may be able to find sprouted beans at your local grocery store. For example, I can often find sprouted mung beans and sprouted black beans at Whole Foods and enjoy them without any digestive consequences.
How Long Do You Soak Beans?
- Kidney Beans: 4 to 5 hours
- Soybeans: 6 to 8 hours
- Lima Beans: 8 hours
- Chickpeas: 8 hours
- Black Beans: 6 hours
- Pinto Beans: 6 to 8 hours
- Black-Eyed Peas: 6 hours
- Adzuki Beans: 8 hours
- Anasazi: 6 to 8 hours
- Lentils: 6 to 8 hours
- Mung beans: 9 to 12 hours
4. Eating them uncooked
No matter what type of bean you choose, it’s best to avoid eating them raw. Why? Because cooking beans partially neutralizes the lectins by breaking the starches down into smaller carbohydrates that are easier to digest. When lectins attach to these smaller carbohydrates, the body can more easily remove them. Therefore, cooking your beans allows you to eat larger quantities of low-lectin beans and enjoy higher lectins varieties with a lower likelihood of digestive consequences.
How to do it right: After you soak your beans it’s a great idea to cook them as well. You can do this by putting them in a soup or stew or boiling them before you add them to other recipes. That way, you can take advantage of the fiber and protein-rich food without any downside.
5. Not pressure-cooking them
When it comes to making beans gut-friendly, there’s no better cooking method than pressure cooking. Pressure cooking is exceptionally efficient at breaking down lectins for a smooth digestive experience. And being able to enjoy beans again is a great excuse to invest in my favorite pressure cooker — the Instant Pot®.
How to do it right: Probably the easiest way to pressure cook beans is with an Instant Pot®. These multi-cookers work like traditional pressure cookers but much quicker; for example, you only need to cook beans on high heat in a pressure cooker for about 10 minutes before they are safer to eat. Depending on the size of the bean, you can cook them in a matter of minutes! Keep in mind that the more thoroughly you soak your beans before cooking them, the faster the cooking time will be.
Pressure Cooking Times for Beans
Small beans: This includes beans like lentils and black-eyed peas: 5 to 10 minutes
Medium beans: this includes beans like pinto beans and black beans: 15 to 25 minutes
Large beans: This includes larger beans like chickpeas, soybeans, and lima beans 35 to 40 minutes
So if I were to summarize the best way to prepare and eat your beans in order or importance:
- Overnight Soak
- Pressure cook
- Avoid eating too many at once
- Eat low-lectin beans first
As you can see, there are so many ways to have your beans and eat them too — without uncomfortable gas, bloating, or pain. I’ll leave you with my favorite black bean recipe, handed down to me by my grandmother, which is the perfect addition to any late summer meal. (Sorry for the Spanish, but I wanted to keep it authentic…just like my grandma wrote it, with English translations :-)).
My Favorite Cuban Black Beans Recipe
- 1 bolsa de frijoles negros (bag of black beans, 16oz)
- 1 cebolla picada (1 diced yellow onion)
- 1 pimiento verde cortado en cubitos (1 green bell pepper sliced, then cubed)
- 1 hoja de laurel (1 bay leaf)
- 1/2 cucharadita de comino (1/2 tsp cumin seed or 1/4 tsp ground cumin)
- 4 dientes de ajo picados (4 garlic cloves minced)
- 6 tazas de agua (6 cups of water)
- 1/4 taza de de vinagre de manzana (1/4 c. apple cider vinegar)
- Olive oil
- Kosher Salt
- Starting the night before, soak frijoles overnight with a teaspoon of salt and baking soda, then drain the next day
- Sauté onions and pepper with 1 Tbsp of olive oil until soft
- Add garlic, bay leaf, and cumin, then sauté until aromatic
- Combine all ingredients into a pressure cooker
- Add fresh water, 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and 1 Tbsp of salt
- Pressure cook on high for 10 mins, followed by a 15 mins natural release
- Remove 1 cup of beans and blend, then add back to the pot to thicken
- Add apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper to taste
- Prepare black beans the day before a party and watch the flavors intensify and soak in when the cooked beans sit overnight in the refrigerator.
- Heat up and ¡Disfruta! Enjoy! (You can also enjoy them immediately if you just can’t wait!)