I have found I do not tolerate a lot of beans, legumes, or nuts, and I wonder if you have any suggestions.
There are many reasons why some people find it hard to digest or tolerate beans and other legumes, as well as nuts or even some seeds. Likewise, there are many factors to consider and implement for the most effective and desirable results, which I will explain below. First, however, and to properly understand this topic, we must define a few things.
What foods are the key culprits?
- Legumes include all beans, peas, and lentils.
- Nuts include all tree “fruits” with hard shells, like almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, pistachios, and coconuts.
- Peanuts are legumes, but often considered as, and used like, a nut.
- Seeds all have an outer coat of varying thickness and hardness, and commonly include foods like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, etc. However, botanically speaking, all of the above foods — legumes and nuts — are seeds, meaning that they are capable of starting a new plant.
Why are legumes and nuts hard to digest for some people?
Legumes and nuts are very different in their nutrient composition, and each poses digestive problems for people for various reasons.
Legumes are high in complex carbohydrates, as well as fiber and other indigestible carbohydrates, and very high in plant protein while being very low in fat. Intestines that are not used to legumes or ones that are very weak and unhealthy will have a hard time with the digestion and presence of some of those carbohydrates.
Nuts, on the other hand, are very high in fat, moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates. Aside from the fact that high-fat foods can be tougher to digest, nuts contain phytonutrients, like phytates and tannins, which can pose digestive challenges for some people as well. Dry legumes also include some of these, which can further compound digestibility issues. For more information about these substances, please refer to my guide A Holistic Guide to Lectins, Phytates, and Oxalates for Healthy Eating.
What does intolerance mean?
A food intolerance means that a person is having a hard time digesting that particular food item, and it is a condition that is usually limited to digestive symptoms only. There may be cramping, bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, or constipation involved at the intestinal level. If any indigestion is experienced at the stomach level, this usually is due to either overeating or dealing with stress or eating foods that are too spicy or too acidic.
A food intolerance should not be confused with a food sensitivity, and especially not with a food allergy. A food intolerance may make us uncomfortable and may be a nuisance, but it is not severe or life-threatening. A food sensitivity, on the other hand, may include digestive and other symptoms, like a headache. In contrast, a food allergy involves the immune system explicitly and can consist of symptoms in different organs and parts of the body. Some food allergies are barely noticeable, while others are severe and can be life-threatening. Food allergy symptoms may include an itchy mouth, throat, or skin, various breakouts and rashes, and constriction of respiratory airways.
The reaction of the digestive system causes symptoms of a food intolerance and food sensitivity. In contrast, symptoms of a food allergy are caused by the response of the immune system. All three of these can appear and disappear throughout our lives at any time. Thus, we should never think that we are either immune to any of them because they have not yet happened or are stuck with any of them for life if they are present. For example, a food intolerance or food sensitivity may appear when eating the very same food one would eat but in a different country or of a different quality, such as organic versus conventional. It may also appear during or after a particularly difficult period in one’s life, such as during chronic stress or extreme acute stress. Likewise, food allergies do not just appear in childhood, they can appear in adulthood, and despite the widespread belief by many, they are not a life sentence. It all depends on one’s lifestyle habits and overall physical, mental, and emotional health, as will be discussed below.
CAUTION: The information shared below only applies to food intolerances. If a food allergy is suspected, one should avoid the suspected food item until appropriate medical tests, diagnosis, and safe course of action are determined.
Causes of food intolerances
In summary, the lack of ability to digest a particular food, specifically legumes, and nuts, is due in part to one or both of the following reasons:
- The health of the digestive system, specifically the intestines, including one’s overall health.
- The form of the food and preparation method used to consume the particular food.
Let’s explore both of these in detail.
1. Health and Digestion
For starters, our human body, this means every human’s body, is perfectly designed to consume whole plant foods. The fact that many people today cannot is a whole other story and reflection of modern society’s imbalanced and destructive way of life. Unfortunately, too many people in our society erroneously use against themselves the idea that “there is no one right diet for everybody” to try to make sense of their digestive problems or food preferences. While it is true that we all cannot and should not eat the exact and same specific foods, by being a human animal, and just like every other animal, we are all adapted and equipped for the same type of diet. In this regard, whether we consult the most trusted and unbiased science or consult the anatomy and physiology of our own human body, that diet is one composed of whole plant foods. Within that group, however, we each have the choice of which plant foods we eat, in what quantities, and when, as our life and health circumstances dictate.
Therefore, unlike with food allergies and food sensitivities, where the offending food should be avoided until appropriate safety measures are applied, or healing takes place, it is often not necessary or a good idea to avoid the foods that cause us an intolerance. That is assuming that they are healthy and beneficial foods, namely whole plant foods. This isn’t to say that we should stress our bodies and endure any avoidable suffering, but rather to mean that we should heal our bodies and in the process gradually introduce the particular whole plant foods and in the right forms.
The reasons why so many people’s intestines become unable to tolerate foods such as legumes and nuts over time is, first, due to how different these foods are in comparison to animal foods, processed foods, and refined foods. Any of these foods, and specifically ones that contain added sugars, oils, preservatives, and artificial ingredients, act negatively upon the proper function of our intestines. One of the first and most essential things that these foods destroy is healthy gut bacteria that can optimally balance itself. Research has demonstrated that the gut bacteria of those who eat plant foods is vastly different from those who eat animal foods or refined foods. In order to digest legumes properly, and nuts too, we must have the right bacteria present in our intestines. Our society today tries to compensate for poor intestinal health by pushing probiotics, but these are not the solution, especially when the probiotics come from supplements. Regardless, for any probiotics to work, whether they come from natural foods or synthetic supplements, they must be placed into an environment that will allow the right bacteria to thrive. Otherwise, we are just wasting our time and money, and possibly bodily processes. Whole plant foods provide fiber and act like prebiotics, which is essential to have proper and healthy gut bacteria. For these reasons, we want a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes, real whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Otherwise, if the right environment is not there and the intestines are not used to eating legumes or nuts regularly, then they are likely to react in negative ways when such dietary changes are made. Whether we are talking about any foods, drinks, or other ingested substances, it is a good idea always to ask ourselves this question: What kind of bacteria and other organisms in my body am I feeding? Helpful and healthy ones or harmful and destructive ones?
Another set of substances that imbalances and destroys healthy gut bacteria and interferes with proper digestion are toxic or harmful substances like alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs, especially antibiotics. These also completely change the intestinal environment. They may wipe out, reduce, or not allow the right bacteria to thrive or be present in appropriate numbers. Antibiotics are of particular concern because they destroy both the harmful and good bacteria in our body indiscriminately, and have been over-prescribed and taken by people routinely over the past few decades. To make matters worse, they are also in the bodies of conventionally-raised animals that people use for food. We must understand that antibiotics are drugs with serious consequences every time they are taken and should be reserved for emergencies. Luckily, today, there is a push to educate laypeople, medical staff, and farmers to stop the abuse of antibiotics. We need to learn how to have a conservative relationship with them and learn to rely more on the body’s own ability to heal itself. It is also wise to seek healing from the numerous safe and effective remedies that we have available, which include herbs, essential oils, homeopathy, acupuncture, cupping, etc.
Thirdly, one’s past and present stress levels must be considered. When we are in states of chronic stress or if our ability to deal with stress effectively is impeded, this impacts every aspect of our body and health. Our hormones work differently, different reactions take place, and in times of stress digestion is compromised. In this regard, it is valuable to understand that digestion is a costly process for the body. If the body is in a state of stress, it will not dedicate the appropriate resources to food digestion. One of the most prominent examples to mention here relates to people who suffer from various bowel symptoms today, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many of these people fixate their efforts on finding the “right diet” and are often steered in that direction by various health professionals when the first and most important thing that should be considered is the health of their nervous system. This includes their mental and emotional health and stress levels. Our intestines are our second brain, and are very intimately tied to our nervous system, where any experiences that we deem as negative and which overwhelm our coping ability are directly reflected in our digestion. On this topic, I always share with people in my audience to consider how their day went and what interactions they had the next time they experience “irritated intestines.” Ask yourself what irritated you today or what has been irritating to you in the recent past. Unfortunately, for many people who have chronic stress and anxiety, the result is IBS or Crohn’s Disease or other irritable bowel diseases, almost regardless of what they eat. And specific diets and food elimination programs that do help, usually only decrease the symptoms without tackling the root cause on the mental, emotional, and nervous system level.
Finally, it is a good idea to consider other lifestyle factors that may require our attention. Sleep quality impacts our health and digestion. Physical exercise affects our health and digestion. Being overweight also presents its own challenges that range from states of inflammation to stress on the digestive and other systems. We have to keep in mind that when the body has too many things working against it, it will pick on the weakest link or reject whatever it deems too challenging for it.
If and when our digestive system is strong, and our intestines are healthy, we will not have any trouble digesting foods like legumes or nuts. This means no bloating, no discomfort, and no flatulence out of the norm. It is, unfortunately, another common myth that many people in modern society have accepted that eating beans always causes gas, given the poor state of intestinal health that we have today. It may or it may not, and it all depends on everything that I am sharing as part of this help article.
2. Food Form and Preparation Method
Whether any of the above digestive and health concerns apply, all too often, the reason so many people have a hard time with legumes and nuts is due to the wrong preparation methods and forms that they eat them in. Here, it is valuable to remind ourselves that both legumes and nuts are plant seeds, as mentioned at the beginning, and when these are in their dry forms, the seeds are dormant. This means they are in a kind of “lockdown” mode, and it is nature’s way of protecting the seed and ensuring the success of future generations of that plant to not be destroyed until the right conditions occur. In this dormant state, those digestive inhibitors, like lectins and phytates, are also in their highest concentration. So if a person has a weak digestive system, a dormant seed, such as is the case with dry nuts, may pose too much of a challenge to break down. Dry beans at least get cooked, which breaks down some of those digestive inhibitors.
In nature, when the seed is dry and dormant water signals the seed to activate itself and begin the new growth process. In practical terms, this means that we should always, or as much as possible, especially if we have trouble tolerating these foods, soak our legumes and nuts before eating them. The biochemical composition of a soaked seed is quite starkly different from a dry seed and makes a tremendous difference to its digestibility. The process of soaking or sprouting dry legumes or nuts breaks down their digestive inhibitors and activates digestive enzymes, which is hugely beneficial for us.
It is, therefore, best to purchase raw dry nuts and soak them before eating for optimal digestion and health benefits. I explain this in the following help article: Do nuts and seeds have to be soaked before eating? Roasted nuts, which cannot be soaked, and nuts coated in oils and other ingredients should be avoided for many problematic reasons.
With regards to legumes, here too, it is best to purchase them in their dry forms and soak sufficiently before cooking. Refer to the following help article for more info about this: What is the benefit of soaking foods like grains and beans? The legumes should be cooked for a proper amount of time too. The longer they cook, the easier they will be to digest. Canned beans will not be ideal for people who cannot tolerate legumes well, as they are not soaked at the industrial level where corners are routinely cut to save time and make the most money, rather than do what is best for human health. Legumes can also be purchased in their fresh forms, like peas and string beans, or frozen forms, like edamame. In such cases, no soaking is needed, but cooking these legumes, while not mandatory for all people, will be of great benefit to those who have a hard time digesting them. It is also imperative to avoid the many fried or roasted legume products that are commonly sold today as “healthy snacks” and come coated in oils and other ingredients. Oils alone, and in combination with other foods whether raw or cooked, can wreak havoc on digestion due to how foreign and unnatural oils are for the human body, how slowly they move through the digestive tract, and how tough oils can be for the body to deal with and breakdown.
Solutions for legume and nut intolerances
Here are fifteen of the most important tips to consider in order to reduce and eliminate legume and nut intolerances.
1. Give the digestive system, specifically the intestines, time to adjust to the inclusion of these foods. Introduce small amounts of legumes and nuts into your diet, literally one spoon at a time. For example, add one tablespoon of legumes to a whole meal salad for a week or two, and then build up to 2 tablespoons, and then 3, until you are consuming at least 1/2 cup of legumes as part of the meal. Pay attention to your body to regulate how slowly or quickly you can increase the amounts. Nuts should generally be consumed in small quantities, so starting with literally just one or two larger nuts for a while may be what is necessary not to overwhelm the system and allow it to adjust. Remember, it took years to break down your body’s optimal functioning, so be patient with it over the coming weeks and months of its journey back to good health.
2. Eat simple meals. Just because we have access to a wide variety of ingredients today does not mean that we should complicate our meals. The more ingredients we use and foods from different groups we eat at the same time, the harder the digestive system has to work. Higher amounts of food mixing and lower digestive efficiency tend to result in digestive troubles. The simpler the meals, the better; and not just for our digestive system, which has to utilize different digestive juices and processes for different food and nutrient groups, but also for our time and money. Simpler meals take less time to make and cost less money.
3. Consider conscious food combining. Depending on the severity of the intolerance, it may be worth one’s time to eat based on food combining guidelines to avoid foods that can trigger each other, and in combination create digestive upsets. The most crucial guidance in this case to follow, and for everyone, not just for those suffering from digestive troubles, is to eat fruit on its own and avoid any kind of dessert (sweets) after meals. For more info, refer to my quick video guides How to use food combining guidelines and 10 Problematic Food and Meal Combinations.
3. Do not overeat. The more we eat, the more stress we put on our digestive system, and the harder it has to work, regardless of what we are eating. Overeating typically results in indigestion and improperly digested foods that cause a disturbance in the intestines.
4. Soak all dry raw nuts and dry legumes. Refer to the paragraphs about this above. Aside from soaked nuts and legumes, consider sprouted nuts and legumes too. Safe choices for sprouted legumes include lentils, mung beans, adzuki beans, and chickpeas.
5. Avoid canned beans and oil-roasted nuts or legumes. If you must rely on canned beans, be sure to rinse them well before eating.
6. Cook all soaked dry legumes properly. This means that we cook them in fresh water after being soaked and rinsed well, not in the soaked water, and cook them for a long enough time, where they are more on the soft side.
7. Discard the water the legumes were cooked in. While it will be fine for some to use that water, people with sensitive intestines and legume intolerances should not use the water that the legumes were cooked in, whether for soups or other meals. Yes, the water can contain some nutrients that have leached out of the legumes, but it will also include the nutrient inhibitors that can be the source of digestive problems.
8. Experiment with different legumes and nuts. The variety is robust within the nut food group and even higher within the legume food group. Given that not all nuts and legumes cause the same potential level of digestive discomfort, sample different kinds of nuts and legumes to find which ones agree most with you at the current time. Typically, mung beans and adzuki beans, as well as the tiny red lentils tend to be the easiest of legumes for people to digest, whereas ones like kidney and fava beans are among the toughest.
9. Use herbs for legume dishes that support proper digestion. These include fennel, turmeric, ginger, cumin, and turmeric. You can choose to use one or several of them, and add them to the water as the beans are cooking or add them to the bean dish. Some of these herbs can also be used as herbal teas as a post-digestive if found desirable.
10. Eat mindfully, and not under stress. While we should always make proper time for our meals and eat consciously and in a peaceful environment, it becomes even more imperative to do that when our intestines are already sensitive and symptomatic. Of course, to do that, we must make ourselves and our health and priority, and adequately plan for and schedule in our meals.
11. Remove foods and substances from the diet that destroy healthy bacteria and create unhealthy intestines. When going plant-based, the more that we stick to a diet that consists of 100% plant foods, without any animal foods, the faster our intestines re-adjust and re-balance. Every time we introduce an animal product, we introduce bacteria and other substances that are not found in plant foods and create inferior intestinal conditions. The same goes for refined sugars and heavily processed and refined foods.
12. Choose organic legumes and nuts as much as possible. Conventionally-grown food has numerous pesticides applied to it and is grown in soils full of synthetic fertilizers. Despite the fact that the governing bodies try to assure us that these pesticides are safe, our health and independent tests are proving otherwise. Therefore, the fewer toxins that we put into our bodies, the more our health benefits, and the fewer things that interfere with our healthy gut bacteria. Almonds and almond butter, for example, are notorious for having numerous problems when not from organic sources. Sometimes, and this is especially true for grains like wheat, people find that their food intolerance goes away when they switch from a conventional to an organic version of that food.
13. Be ultra-conservative with any drug use. Antibiotics, for example, should only be reserved for serious emergencies and not as a go-to for any common infection. Learn to utilize, instead, the many better and safer healing therapies that do not throw our systems out of balance and threaten our healthy gut flora. The same goes for any other pharmaceuticals or substances like alcohol.
14. Do not rely on supplements. While a digestive enzyme may be valuable in some instances, especially at the beginning of dietary changes towards a plant-based diet, you want your body to re-balance itself naturally and know what to do without relying on any external help. When it comes to any herbs, eat them as real food, rather than take them in processed forms that come in capsules, tablets, etc. And when it comes to probiotics, as mentioned above, focus on real food probiotics and prebiotics, which is the safest, most natural, and most beneficial way to heal and strengthen our intestines.
15. Practice healthy lifestyle habits. We have to remember always that our health is a whole package deal, and no one part, organ, or system works in isolation. Everything in our body works together and impacts each other, and everything we do in our lives affects our mind and body. Therefore, the more healthy and healing lifestyle habits we adopt, the better for the state of our entire health.
It is, therefore, imperative to first consider one’s current and past state of health and lifestyle, and how these have influenced the current state of digestion given the factors mentioned above. Next, begin to apply one or more of the solutions provided above, mindfully observing how the body responds to achieve effective and sustainable results. If, after at least 6 to 8 weeks, there is no change for the better or improvement of any kind, it would be valuable to have a personalized health and diet assessment by a qualified plant-based health practitioner. After all, the digestion of healthy foods should be a smooth and pleasant experience when we eat the right foods, in the right quantities, and at the right times for our needs.