Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is It Nuts To Eat Beans and Grains?

In recent years, I've heard more and more admonitions about beans, grains, and nuts, saying that they'll pretty much turn your gut into a Toxic Wasteland of Horribleness.  Some pick and choose some as being more lethal than others:  "NEVER eat lentils!"  or "only black beans are OK to eat" or "Macadamias are OK, but no other nuts!!" or "SOY???  SOY WILL KILL YOU!!!"  or "Consumption of grains will bring about the zombie apocalypse!!"  OK, maybe I'm paraphrasing a bit.  But that's the general gist of what I've been reading and hearing.

One of my dinners:  Buckwheat, quinoa, barley, chia seeds, split peas, lentils, kale, purple cabbage, carrots, lemon juice, EVOO, cayenne.  Because I'm a risk-taker.

And, in a way, they're right.  Beans, nuts, and wheat have various biologically active compounds in them that can be toxic to the human system.

Now, let me start by saying this:  if we try to avoid every toxin that exists in our food, chances are, we're going to starve.  Just about everything on your plate has toxins or antinutrients of some sort in it.  From spinach (oxalic acid) to grains (phytates) to eggs (conalbumin, avidin) to parsnips (psoralins), and many more, toxins are everywhere in lots of the things we eat.  Avoiding the toxins does not necessarily outweigh the benefits of eating these foods.

There are a whole ton of anti-nutrients and toxins in beans, grains, and seeds we could discuss, but it would take me all year to write that blog, so we'll narrow it down.  One issue in particular that people get very concerned about is something called lectin.  Lectin is scary stuff. When the offending plant parts are raw, they protect themselves from being eaten by creating antinutrients such as lectin.  Consumption can cause all kinds of gastrointestinal yuckiness and possibly death, which, as we know, is tough to recover from.  There were even some incidents of kidney bean poisoning due to consumption of incorrectly prepared kidney beans. 

Ah, but there's the thing:  the key part of that sentence would be "incorrectly prepared."  The antinutrients and toxins in these beans are present in undercooked and dry beans.  Beans have to be prepared correctly.  Pressure cooking and boiling seem to denature lectin and other antinutrients, and canned beans are also considered perfectly safe. (1) (2) (3

Sprouting/soaking many types beans, grains, and nuts also lowers (but does not remove entirely) lectin content; the longer they sprout, the more the lectin denatures. This doesn't work for every kind of bean and grain, but as a general rule, it's a good prep method.  The reason you soak beans and grains before cooking them is for the purpose of lectin reduction/easier digestion.  You can even add some baking soda to the soaking water or try autoclaving to help reduce lectin even more.

 Fermentation also seems to significantly reduce or eliminate lectin in many cases. (1) (2)

And remember-- lectins aren't all bad.  As a matter of fact, lectins have been found to be useful for cancer treatment, fungi, and even HIV and retroviruses.  (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)  So, while too much of a good thing is not so good, the right amount of a good thing can be... good.

 But what about gluten, you ask?  Isn't that some sort of inflammation-causing beast of the devil? 

Well, yes.  Gluten is really, really bad for you...

If you have celiac disease.  Or are gluten-intolerant.  But in a healthy digestive system, gluten is broken down just fine.  If you don't feel good when you eat gluten, by all means, get rid of it.  But if you're fine with gluten, chances are, gluten is fine with you, too.  If in doubt, go without for 30 days and then slowly re-introduce it and see how you feel.

Here are my takeaway notes:

-ALWAYS prepare your beans and grains properly-- soak them first, and cook them fully under high heat (pressure cooker is my favorite method).  If in doubt, buy canned beans (look for those without any added sugars, meats, or other unnecessary ingredients-- you really just need to see beans and water there).  Don't forget to use the bean cooking liquid-- a lot of the nutrients end up there!

-I prefer einkorn, sourdough, and sprouted grains to regular wheat, personally.  They are more nutritious and digest better.  Modern wheat has been bastardized to create a higher-yield product, which, unfortunately, also created a not-as-easily-digestible product.  Einkorn wheat is what wheat was before money got in the way.  It's easier to digest and has a lot of beta-carotene and other nutrients in it (and I dig the way it tastes, too).

-Don't ditch healthy foods (beans, spinach, whole grains, fruit, etc) just because you read somewhere on the internet that they're the ONE WORST FOOD you can eat.  Do your research and see if the alarm is justified.

-Always do what works best for you.

-And remember:  many cultures have survived and thrived on diets full of beans, nuts, seeds, and grains.  Diets containing beans, whole grains, and nuts/seeds have been found to have many excellent health benefits, too. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) Chances are, you'll be just fine.


  1. Excellent post. With all of the food wars, I also think people forget to just enjoy what they eat. I want to eat healthy, and I want what's best for my body, but I also just want to enjoy my meals.

    1. That is an excellent point. I think, also, that people don't realize that you can enjoy your meals AND eat heatfully-- it's not an either/or thing!

  2. This is a great post! It has so many helpful tips for eating healthy while loving what your eating something very important to me! Thanks so much Melody.