International Solutions to the Gas Crisis

No, not THAT gas crisis. After all, this is a nutrition column. I’m talking about  challenges that may arise (in fact sometimes fill the room) when we switch from low to higher fibre diets.

Often people are cautious about getting too full of beans, due to the reputation of these foods in the aroma department. Good news! Unpleasant gaseous emissions are not an essential part of bean eating. High fibre plant foods are used without ill effect by populations around the world and have numerous health benefits. In fact they reduce constipation, which can be a cause of gas. Yet if we’re to eat more beans, broccoli, cauliflower, we may wonder what those people know that we don’t!

It helps to understand the origins of intestinal gas, so we can eliminate potential digestive difficulties. Starches and sugars from plant foods are absorbed in the small intestine, leaving the indigestible fiber and shorter, fiber-like molecules to travel along to the large intestine. There bacteria digest the shorter molecules; one product of this bacterial action can be gas.

To put things into perspective, it proves to be entirely normal and even beneficial to pass some gas. In fact the Dutch National Liver and Intestine Foundation recommends that the optimal number of such events is 15 times per day! Healthy young men break wind 14–25 times a day and women half as often; most of this passes unnoticed. The US army has developed devices (of course) so that research could be conducted on normal amounts and times. I chuckle when I imagine those privates whose tour of duty involved wearing such a device.

Nonetheless, we all know that sometimes it can be too much, and too nasty. To minimize those moments when you don’t know whether to look at each other or blame the dog, here are ideas.

1. Boost your fiber intake in gradual steps. We all have helpful intestinal bacteria that assist in digesting our food; the exact population of bacteria present depends on the kinds of food we eat. When we shift to a healthier diet it takes time for the right bacteria to become dominant.

2. Start with the legumes that are easiest to digest.  These tend to be the smaller ones: split peas, lentils, adzuki beans, and mung beans. These don’t need to be pre-soaked, though soaking may further improve digestibility.

3. Gradually introduce bigger beans. Pre-soak garbanzo, kidney, and beans of similar size then discard the soaking water that contains the shorter fibre-like molecules and add fresh water added for cooking. (Skim off any foam that arises.)

4. Increase your use of legumes gradually over several months. Start with small servings once or twice a week; gradually increase serving size and frequency.

5. Chew legumes well. We digest best when we chew foods thoroughly; enzymes in our saliva begin the process of carbohydrate digestion. This is especially important as we get older and salivary enzyme production decreases.

7. Fructose (fruit sugar), other sugars, and ‘slimming’ foods that contain sorbitol can be problematic. You may find certain combinations, such as dried fruit along with foods that are slower to digest, to be volatile.

8. Exercise helps our intestine function best.

9. Here are tips from around the globe.

* The Japanese use a seaweed called kombu to improve digestibility; it is added during cooking and removed before serving.

* In India, an herbal extract called asafetida (from plants grown in Afghanistan) is sometimes added to cooked foods.  Fennel also is found to be helpful for digestion and added to curries, bean dishes and teas.

*North Americans use an enzyme preparation called Beano that may break down much of the indigestible carbohydrate to absorbable sugars.  (Avoid Beano if you are allergic to moulds or penicillin.)

*Latin Americans prevent their gas problems with an herb similar to parsley, called epazoate.  It grows wild on the West coast of North America and is a component of many chili powders and a seasoning for bean dishes.

Ingredients in traditional dishes from around the world have benefits far beyond flavour!

Vesanto Melina is a registered dietitian and author based near Fort Langley. For healthful and delicious recipes and nutrition tips, see her books “The New Becoming Vegetarian” (US title), “Becoming Vegetarian” (Canadian title); the Food Allergy Survival Guide; Becoming Vegan; and Raising Vegetarian Children. For personal consultations call 604-888-8325 (clinic) or 604-882-6782 (home office); web www.nutrispeak.com.

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