The freshness and quality of the foods we eat can transform the taste of our meals and the state of our health. And for me, there’s definitely a much greater sense of satisfaction and pride that I get from knowing that I made a meal from pure, healthful ingredients. I now make muffins from scratch, blend my own almond milk and cook dried beans instead of emptying out BPA and preservative laced canned beans. Although it may take a few times to get it right, at least I know there are no harmful chemicals or preservatives in what I prepare for myself, my friends or my family.
There are many benefits from using whole foods in their true form as opposed to buying the canned versions. Aside from avoiding harmful toxins, it’s usually much more economical. Packaging is often where the cost is driven up with most foods. In addition, a lot of the preservatives and cooking methods used to make these foods shelf stable and last for years can wreak havoc on our digestive systems. By choosing whole foods and using proper cooking methods, we can make meals much more digestible and therefore, allow our bodies to absorb the beneficial nutrients they provide.
As a vegetarian and mostly vegan, I’ve been asked many times “where do you get your protein from.”
This is a topic I’ll cover in more depth soon, but beans and lentils are what I’m going to focus on here. They are just some of the many great sources of vegetarian protein. They also contain vital vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, B Vitamins, and even omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.
Here’s how some of these nutrients break down so you can see the true benefits of these little wonders. Magnesium and potassium are incredibly important in the proper functioning of the heart and in managing blood pressure levels. Iron helps in red blood cell production. B Vitamins are involved in pretty much every function of the human body including reducing stress, managing anxiety and depressing, fighting fatigue, easing PMS symptoms and improving memory. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids help to manage inflammation, protect the heart, improve mental health and even help to prevent certain types of cancers. The high fiber content in beans and lentils assist in moving food through our digestive system, stabilizing blood sugar and lowering cholesterol.
So you can obviously see how adding beans and lentils to your diet is extremely beneficial whether you’re a carnivore or vegan. However, oftentimes a popular little jingle comes to mind when thinking about these little guys…”beans, beans, the magical fruit, the more you eat, the more you…” They can pack a big, uncomfortable, rather pungent punch at times. Luckily, there are some things you can do to make them much easier on your digestive system and more of a pleasure to eat.
As I mentioned above, start with fresh dried beans, not the canned stuff. These are going to provide you with the best nutrition and the least contamination. The first and most important step here is to soak your beans and here’s why. Beans contain phytic acid and oligosaccharides that are the main reasons we get digestive upset from eating them. Soaking helps to remove the phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to any minerals and metals in our body and takes them out. Since we want to make sure we’re absorbing all of the beneficial nutrients our food provides, soaking is essential. In addition, soaking releases the oligosaccharides in the beans, which is a complex sugar that is difficult for our bodies to digest because we don’t produce the enzyme alpha-galactosidase to break them down. When we can’t break these sugars down they can ferment in our digestive tract and create gas.
You want to soak the beans at least 8 hours to overnight. Among the benefits mentioned, this process also reduces the cooking time. Some say soaking for 1-3 days is even better, so feel free to experiment. However, if soaking for more hours than overnight, change out the water twice a day. I typically just soak them overnight and cook them in the morning or soak them in the morning and cook them when I get back from work. There is also a quick soak method where you can boil the beans for 10-15 minutes and then let them soak for 1-2 hours, rinse and cook them again. However, this method may not be as beneficial at removing the digestive villains, so I’d recommend the overnight approach.
You want to put about 3 times the amount of water as beans to allow room for them to expand. Once the soaking is done, make sure to rinse the beans and put them in a pot with clean water that covers them about an inch or two. Bring them to a boil for about 10 minutes, skimming off any foam that accumulates on top of the water. Then cover and continue to cook on a low to medium setting until beans are fully cooked and tender. This can take anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour.
Another great tip to help with the digestibility of beans is to add a piece of kombu to the pot when cooking the beans. Kombu is a type of seaweed that comes in a dried form, that contains the necessary enzymes to assist in breaking down the oligosaccharides and therefore further reduces any chance of the toots after eating a meal with beans. Simply cut off a 1-2 inch piece and throw it into the pot. And don’t worry, kombu doesn’t add any flavoring to your beans, so they’ll taste just as delicious as you’ve always known them to.
Very popular in Indian cooking is adding certain spices to beans and lentils that support better digestion. Some popular ones are ginger, turmeric, fennel, coriander, cumin and asofetida.
PRACTICE PROPER FOOD COMBINING
It’s said that beans are better digested when paired with whole grains and vegetables. Eating them with meats and other forms of protein and dairy can lead to digestive issues.
CHEW YOUR FOOD
Your mouth is the first point of digestion for your food. The more you chew your food, the less work the rest of your digestive system has to do to break it down and less opportunity for digestive discomfort. Therefore, make sure you eat slow, savor and enjoy each bite and chew thoroughly.
EAT WITH FERMENTED FOODS
Adding fermented foods such as fermented vegetables, pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut to your meals can help aid in digestion of foods that are otherwise a bit more difficult to break down. They consist of digestive enzymes and help restore beneficial bacteria to your gut. Eat a bit before or with your meals to get your digestive juices working and avoid annoying tummy troubles.