I love beans, but they hate me. I feel gassy and bloated when I eat them. I’ve heard they are rich in fiber, and we all need more fiber. What should I do?
Food fiber is an important and desirable part of our diet. The Western diet has become largely dependent on refined and processed foods, and there has been a drop in the fiber content of many diets. When Dr. Denis Burkitt wrote about fiber some 40 years ago, he did so from the perspective of his African experience. The African diet was—in those days—rich in whole grains and legumes and, consequently, provided large amounts of fiber. The low rates of heart disease, diverticulitis, and appendicitis were all linked to fiber in the diet.
Americans typically consume only about 40 percent of the recommended amount of fiber, and get most of it from refined white flour, which is a poor reflection on the Western diet.
Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which means peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts. Usually we speak of two kinds of fiber: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which does not.
Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool by absorbing water, thereby softening and enlarging the stool. Soluble fiber feeds bacteria in the bowel, makes for comfortable bowel health, and helps with bowel function.
Fiber is required at higher levels than normally consumed for its benefit to be measurable. The Institute of Medicine recommends 21 grams of fiber for women and 30 grams of fiber for men who are over the age of 50 years. The recommended five fruits and vegetables give this amount when accompanied by six servings of whole grains per day.
A mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber is best, so an apple should be eaten with its skin, which provides the insoluble fiber to match the soluble fiber of the apple’s flesh. Fiber helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and every 10-gram increase, up to the recommended 30-gram level, lowers the risk of heart attack by 14 percent and risk of cardiac death by 27 percent.
Fiber tends to lower cholesterol levels, perhaps because it binds bile salts, which are made from cholesterol, forcing the liver to make more and excrete it.
People who eat more fiber lose more weight. Additionally, type 2 diabetes is reduced. The 2007 Nurses’ Health Study showed a 21 percent decrease in risk of type 2 diabetes for eating an extra two servings of whole grains daily.
Interestingly, people with irritable bowel syndrome do not get as dramatic a benefit from fiber, suggesting the neurogenic component to this condition may be more dominant.
Persons who are constipated benefit from added fiber, especially when increasing their water consumption along with fiber consumption. We recommend being progressive and intentional as you go about increasing dietary fiber slowly over several weeks.
Now, about your problem with beans: Soaking beans overnight, then throwing away the water, followed by discarding the water with which you bring them to a boil, will remove a lot of the soluble fiber. As this is the fiber that feeds the bacteria that cause gas, you may find you can enjoy the beans and they have stopped hating you.
If you still can’t tolerate beans, fiber can be found in many other foods. It’s generally better to get your fiber in food rather than looking for it in dietary supplements. That old-fashioned oatmeal with berries for breakfast is looking awfully good again. n