The Side Effects of Beans

If you're looking for an alternative to meat to get your required servings of protein, beans are a good nutrient-packed food choice. However, eating a lot of beans can have an embarrassing side effect — excess flatulence.

Excess beans can cause flatulence. (Image: FotografiaBasica/iStock/GettyImages)

But you shouldn't stop eating the musical fruit, because there are steps you can take to reduce the digestive discomfort they may cause.

All About Beans

Beans, often referred to as pulses, are the mature seeds from legumes, belonging to the Fabaceae family. Beans are a staple ingredient around the world. Inexpensive and a good source of protein, beans are an important plant-based contribution to protein intake for people who don't eat meat. Beans are also rich in B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamin E.

There are many types of beans that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors for use in various dishes, thanks to their different flavors and textures. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, pinto beans are the most popular bean eaten in America. Other common types of beans include:

  • Lima beans
  • Black beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Soybeans
  • Kidney beans
  • Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • Navy beans
  • Red beans
  • Lentils

You can enjoy all types of beans in dry, canned and frozen forms.

How Much Should You Eat?

Because beans are an excellent source of plant protein, in addition to containing other nutrients found in meat such as iron and zinc, the USDA Food Patterns classify beans as part of the Protein Foods Group. The USDA also classifies beans as a subgroup of the Vegetable Group because their nutrient content is similar to other vegetables, which also contain potassium and folate.

The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern recommends you eat 5 1/2-ounce equivalents of protein foods on a daily basis if you are on a 2,000-calorie per day diet. For reference, 1/2 cup of beans is the equivalent of 2 ounces of protein.

Dietary Guidelines recommends you consume 2 1/2 cups of vegetables daily on a 2,000-calorie diet. Healthy eating patterns include a variety of vegetables from all of the vegetable subgroups, including legumes. As a subgroup of the Vegetable Group, beans should be one of the foods incorporated into your diet, especially for the healthy dietary fiber they provide.

Beans — A Gas Primer

Passing gas is normal and a byproduct of healthy digestion. Most people pass gas up to 20 times each day. However, some foods, especially those with high fiber content, tend to make you produce more gas. Beans are a known offender for causing side effects of gas and bloating.

When eating a lot of beans causes gaseous consequences, it's because the digestive enzymes in your stomach and small intestines have a difficult time fully breaking down the fiber and short molecular chains of sugar, known as oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate formed when simple sugars are linked together. They are stored in large amounts in the outer coatings of beans and other legumes.

Much of the undigested carbohydrate that bypasses digestion, and remains relatively intact, eventually reaches your colon where resident bacteria digest it, often creating gas from the fermentation created in the process. This gas is released as flatulence.

Make Beans More Digestible

Although there are no specific beans that don't cause gas, not all types of pulses increase gas equally. Everyone reacts differently to each type of bean — so if one type of bean bothers you, try a different one to see if it causes less of the musical byproduct.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, some of the beans that tend to be heavy-duty gas formers include:

  • Lima
  • Pinto
  • Navy
  • Whole soybeans

How you prepare your beans can make a difference in how gassy they are. Consider some of these tips to make beans easier to digest so you can take advantage of all the beans' health benefits and not experience side effects from eating lots of beans.

  • Presoaking: By soaking beans for 12 to 24 hours and discarding the soaking water, you can reduce the gas-producing potential of beans. The longer beans soak, the more effective this will be. Use fresh, clean cooking water.

  • Digestive enzymes: To break down some of the gas-producing oligosaccharides, you can take an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase before eating beans. Products such as Beano, Bean Relief and Bean-zyme can help improve digestion of beans.

  • Small servings: By starting out slowly and keeping your portions small, you can let your body get accustomed to the fiber and oligosaccharides in beans. Gradually increase your intake by eating beans more frequently or consuming larger servings. When you eat beans regularly, you may find they produce less flatulence over time.
  • Chew your beans thoroughly to expose them to the digestive enzymes in your saliva.
  • Drink more water as you increase your consumption of beans.
  • Rinse canned beans without sauce before eating.

Beans' Health Benefits — Weight Management

Becoming a bean lover can help you lose weight. Beans and other pulses are an excellent addition to your diet if you are managing your weight. Both the protein and high soluble fiber content in beans can help curb your appetite and eliminate your tendency to overeat by making you feel full on fewer calories.

A study published in Food and Nutrition Research in October 2016 found the fiber in beans may have more of an effect on suppressing your appetite than animal-based protein meals. Fiber helps slow down digestion and absorption, which makes you feel full longer. This satiety effect could help reduce food cravings and snacking and decrease your overall daily calorie consumption.

A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2016 assessed 940 participants to conclude that consuming beans reduced body fat and led to modest weight-loss, even without restricting calories.

Beans' Health Benefits for Diabetes

Studies show that beans are a great option if you need to control your blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes or eat a vegetarian diet, you are likely aware that beans with rice provide a complete plant-based protein source.

A study in Nutrition Journal published in April 2012 tested the effect of several kinds of beans on blood sugar levels in people with Type 2 diabetes when the beans were eaten with white rice. After testing blood sugar in participants who ate either white rice alone or rice with beans, researchers concluded that blood sugar was lowest in individuals who ate rice paired with beans compared to when the rice was eaten alone.

Legumes may lower blood sugar and cholesterol in people with Type 2 diabetes better than whole grains, according to an article in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The November 2012 trial compared a diet enriched with 1 cup of legumes daily to a diet enriched with whole-wheat foods.

After a 12-week period, researchers found that both diets lowered blood sugar, but the bean-rich diet showed a more positive effect. Both diets also lowered levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as slightly lowering blood pressure in participants with Type 2 diabetes.

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