Beans and Gas: Clearing the air

Beans and Gas
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More than a decade ago, the Quarterly Journal of Medicine published a review entitled: “Vegetarian Diet: Panacea for modern lifestyle disease?” The answer was in the affirmative, noting those eating vegetarian appear to have less obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, cancers, kidney disease, maybe less stroke, less age-related vision loss, less diverticulosis, fewer gallstone and of course, less constipation. But after going through the laundry list of benefits, the researchers did identify two drawbacks of a plant-based diet: 1) the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which I’ve covered previously, and 2) increased intestinal gas production. So on one hand, we have half of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, and on the other, flatulence.

Let me start off by saying that intestinal gas is normal and healthy. When patients present to physicians complaining of too much gas, they are typically instructed to go home and keep track for a week. “Although this may sound complicated,” wrote researchers in a gastroenterology journal, “we have found that patients rather enjoy keeping such a record.”

Americans report passing gas an average of 14 times a day, with the normal range extending up to a frequency of 22 times daily. Many people who think they have too much gas fall well within the normal range, concludes famed flatologist Michael Levitt, M.D., “and they simply have to be informed of their ‘normality.’”

Wondering who funded this research? You may be surprised that the real ground-breaking work in this area was done by NASA in the 1950s—our grandparents’ tax dollars hard at work. NASA was genuinely concerned that astronauts might suffocate, or some spark would ignite the methane. So papers with names like “Recent Advances in Flatology” represent space age research! As one NASA research scientist recommended, “it may prove advantageous to select astronauts…who do not normally produce large quantities of flatus.”

I’ll never forget the first time I lectured on the subject. I asked if anyone in the auditorium cared to venture a guess as to how many times a day the average person passes gas. I was expecting the students would posit maybe 5 or 10 and then I could wow them with the fact that no, the norm is more like once every waking hour, up to 22 times a day. But the first guess? 200. OK, so maybe some people do have too much gas! For those wanting to cut down on emissions, here are some tips (I’ll try not to be too long-winded :).

Flatulence come from two places: swallowed air, and fermentation in the bowel. Things that can cause you to swallow extra air include gum chewing, ill-fitting dentures, sucking on hard candies, drinking through a straw, eating too fast, talking while you eat, and cigarette smoking. So if the fear of lung cancer doesn’t get you to quit smoking, maybe fear of flatulence will.

The main source of gas, though, is the normal bacterial fermentation in our colon of undigested sugars. Dairy products are a leading cause of excessive flatulence, due to poor digestion of the milk sugar lactose, though even people who are lactose tolerant may suffer from dairy. One of the most flatulent patients ever reported in the medical literature was effectively cured once dairy products were removed from his diet. The case, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records, involved a guy who, after consuming dairy, experienced “70 passages in one four-hour period.” Cutting the cheese, indeed.

Other poorly digested sugars include sorbitol and xylitol in sugar-free candies. The fizziness in soda is carbon dioxide, which gets absorbed by our gut, but the high fructose in the soda’s corn syrup may be another culprit. Cruciferous vegetables may also contribute (kale-force winds?). Some grains can do it—the word pumpernickel stems from Middle German and means, roughly, “goblin that breaks wind.”

Beans have been christened the musical fruit, but could it just be a lot of hot air? A randomized controlled crossover study published last week, “Perceptions of flatulence from bean consumption among adults in 3 feeding studies,” concluded “People’s concerns about excessive flatulence from eating beans may be exaggerated.”

Noting that “An increasing body of research and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans supports the benefits of a plant-based diet, and legumes specifically, in the reduction of chronic disease risks,” they started people on pinto beans, black-eyed peas, or vegetarian baked (navy) beans. During the first week, 35% reported increased flatulence but that fell to 15% by week three, 5% by week five, and 3% by week eight. Much of the bad rap for beans grew out of short-term studies in the 60′s that didn’t account for our body’s ability to adapt.

Long-term, most people bulking up on high-fiber foods do not appear to have significantly increased problems with gas. In the beginning, though, “A little bit of extra flatulence,” reads the Harvard Health Letter, “could be an indication that you’re eating the way you should!” The buoyancy of floating stools from trapped gasses can in fact be seen as a sign of adequate fiber intake. The indigestible sugars in beans that make it down to our colon may even function as prebiotics to feed our good bacteria and make for a healthier colon.

Even if at first they make us gassy, beans are so health-promoting that we should experiment with ways to keep them in our diet at all costs. Lentils, split peas and canned beans tend to be less gas-producing. Tofu usually isn’t an offender. Repeated soakings of dried beans and tossing the cooking water may help if you boil your own. Worse comes to worst, there are cheap supplements that contain alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme shown to break up the bean sugars and take the sail out of your wind.

Odor is a separate issue. The smell appears to come primarily from the digestion of sulfur-rich foods, so to cut down on the stench, experts have recommended cutting back on foods such as meat and eggs (hydrogen sulfide is called “rotten egg gas” for a reason). In “Contribution of Dietary Protein to Sulfide Production in the Large Intestine” researchers found that meat-eaters generated as much as 15 times the sulfides as those eating vegetarian.

There are healthy sulfur-rich foods, such as garlic and cauliflower. If you’re about to embark on a long trip in a confined space after a big meal of aloo gobi, Pepto-Bismol® and generic equivalents can act as a windbreaker by binding up the sulfur in your gut to eliminate odors, but should be used only as a short term solution due to the potential for bismuth toxicity with chronic use.

Then there are the high tech solutions, such as carbon fiber odor-eating underwear (cost: $65),  which were put to the test in an American Journal of Gastroenterology study that included such gems as “Utilising gas-tight Mylar pantaloons, the ability of a charcoal lined cushion to adsorb sulphur-containing gases instilled at the anus of eight subjects was assessed.” Assessed, that is, by a panel of fart-sniffing judges. And the name of the charcoal lined cushion? The “Toot Trapper.”

To reiterate, though, intestinal gas is normal and healthy. No less than Hippocrates himself was quoted as saying “passing gas is necessary to well-being.” As one chair of gastroenterology wrote in a review of degassing drugs and devices (and yes, Dr. Fardy is a real name), “Perhaps increased tolerance of flatus would be a better solution, for we tamper with harmless natural phenomena at our peril.”

 - Michael Greger, M.D.

Reposted from One Green Planet

Image credit: net_efekt / Flickr

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  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please be sure to leave any questions or comments you have below, and check out all the videos on beans!

    • Stacey

      Hello Dr. Greger – I recently discovered your site and LOVE the information you provide. I wasn’t sure where else to post this, I do realize this thread is a bit dated. I’ve read many conflicting articles on beans – one camp seems to believe them to be a superfood, while the other condemns them as a food not fit for human consumption due to their high lectin content. If indeed beans must be cooked to reduce their toxicity to tolerable levels, are they really as healthy as they are claimed to be? I’m a bean lover, but have given them up because a nagging voice in my head makes me tend to agree that any food that must be cooked and/or processed before it can be consumed by humans is perhaps not the best food for me to be eating. Do you have any thoughts or insight on this? Your response is much appreciated!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=765646634 Jana Nielson

    Dr Fardy! Bwahaaahaaaaahaha!

    …..I think I have been hanging out with my 4 sons too long.

  • JJ

    I laughed my way through this one. You have a fun way of presenting science.

  • Mike Quinoa

    Kale-force winds—I love it. Lately I’ve been getting lazy and just eating my kale raw, much like you would a stalk of celery. Dr Greger, I believe you advocate making a green smoothie out of the kale for maximum nutrient absorption. Is my laziness costing me nutrapoints?

    • DrDons

      Hi Mike,
      You probably would get a bit more nutrients with proper cooking of the Kale. However you don’t loose much and the important thing is to eat your greens. Doing smoothies is a convenient way to get nutrients. You can view previous videos for more information.. Raw Food Nutrients and Best Cooking Methods.

    • JJ

      Mike: I remember one of Dr. Greger’s videos that talked about needing to get some fat with your greens in order to get certain nutrition. In other words, if you eat it raw without say nuts or rubbing a little oil in, then you are missing out on some good nutrition.

    • JJ

      Ah, I found the video if you want to check it out for yourself:
      http://nutritionfacts.org/videos/forego-fat-free-dressings/

  • Mike Quinoa

    Thanks DrDons and JJ for your informative replies :)

  • Vegan Epicurean

    Dr. G,

    I recently heard that the reason humans produce gas after eating beans is because they contain raffinose which is a starch that is poorly digested due to a lack of the enzyme galactosidase. The MD claimed that adding baking soda to the soaking liquid reduced the raffinose. Have you heard anything about this?

    thanks!
    Alicia

    • Michael Greger M.D.

      Yes indeed, research dating back more than 25 years (“Effect of Processing on Flatus-Producing Factors in Legumes“) found that adding baking soda to the soak water of dried beans before cooking (about 1/16 teaspoon per quart) significantly decreases the content of the raffinose family of sugars. The study I profile here in Beans and Gas: Clearing the Air that concluded “People’s concerns about excessive flatulence from eating beans may be exaggerated” used canned beans, though, which I find to be much more convenient. If you have the time, though, it’s hard to imagine a better nutritional bargain than dried beans, peas, and lentils.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1324020182 Tsandi Crew

        Don’t forget to rinse the beans after soaking in baking soda… it isn’t supposed to be included in the final product. Also, adding carrots to your cooking the beans is another old fashioned way of reducing gas when cooking beans.

  • Vegan Epicurean

    Thanks Dr. G. for the quick reply and the links. You are the best! I knew you would know and would be happy to share. :-)

    Alicia

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  • Brian

    I’m a vegan who eats mostly plant based whole foods(some processed) diet and I still have foul smelling farts. I think I surpass the normative 22 farts per person per day as well. Since I was a child I’ve always had an excess of gas and even taking medications has never helped. I’m sure shifting from a carnivorous diet to a plant based diet has helped my overall health but I’ve never been able to decrease the odor or consistency of this natural(but embarrassing) bodily function. 

    • DebPate

      There
      basically 5 common causes for excessive flatulence:

      1.   Consuming too many carbs

      2.   Consuming indigestible foods, this is
      an individual issue i.e. lactose intolerance is a common problem

      3.   Excessive enzymes: again an
      individual issue two people can eat the same meal and only one of them will develop
      gas, simply because his intestinal tract contains more enzymes. It all depends
      on the amount and type of bacteria in the large intestine.

      4.   Chewing food and swallowing air:
      chewing food properly alleviates the work the intestinal tract has to do i.e.
      less gas. Swallowing more air than normal ie. chewing gum will do just the
      opposite.

      5.   Intestinal infections: eating
      contaminated food or drinking contaminated water will cause intestinal tract
      problems; I assume this is not the problem.

      Cutting the
      amount of carbohydrates and avoiding foods that you know cause you problems can
      be very helpful and again I assume you have tried this to some extent.  Chamomile, peppermint, sage and marjoram are
      the common herbs that help alleviate flatulence.  Hot pepper and ginger can also be helpful.  Over-the counter Bean-O is touted to work but
      I’m always wary of over-the counter products.

    • Emilyc615

      I have a similar problem and have found that consuming more fiber (in the form of a supplement) and using magnesium supplements for a kind of laxative effect is really helpful. The problem appears to be transit time. I calculated that it took about three days from the time I had a meal until it left my body, and that gave the food a lot of time to go rotten in my gut, causing really uncomfortable stuff to happen. Someone else on this website recommended a book called “Cure Constipation Now” which is where I got the idea to consume more fiber and use non-irritating laxatives to speed things along.

    • Danillo

      I know vegans who say that they don’t think they can eat legumes at all because of bloat, and they worry about not consuming their essential aminoacids. I know soaking the legumes before cooking is usually recomended, but could sprouting have an even better effect on their diggestion?

      • Dina

        Oh, definitely, sprouting helps a lot. IT makes everything easier on the gut, and nutrients are more readily absorbed. I love my sprouted stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/JadeQueen Mary Saunders

    Aloe may help.  It is easy to find the juice in health food stores these days.

    Also, James Duke recommends carminative herbs:  allspice, cloves, cornmint, caraway, dill, fennel, horsebalm, peppermint, sage, and thyme.

  • Smilenstein

    May I suggest fart absorbing pads …if you have a problem. http://www.shopinprivate.com/subtle-butt.html. My sister sent me this link one day and I nearly died laughing. Read the comments and ratings. Hillarious.

  • Kirbonite

    I try to wash beans.. Dr. Klaper suggest that has comes from the hemi-cellulose (sp?) coating.. I find canned beans don’t cause problems but in an effort to decrease sodium I starting soaking and boiling.. I fart more now..   however, I did mix in some kale and mushrooms.

    • Tonya CatLady

      Soak and rinse dried beans several times before cooking and eating rice with beans resolves the tooting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1324020182 Tsandi Crew

    Love your posts Dr. Greger… well written, and humorous!

  • Jennifer Green

    I found this interesting and hilarious! I read portions of it to my kids, and they were laughing so hard. My son is now an aspiring flatologist.

  • Carol

    Not only are you adorable but you make me laugh out loud!! Thanks for the realization that I am normal! :)

  • Betsy

    Dr. Greger, your puns in this article had me laughing so hard that I was crying! Thanks for the good info and for a great laugh as well!

  • Selçuk Danişment

    It is common knowledge to cook beans and lentils with a spoonful of cummin (in Turkey) to get rid of the gas..

  • Ruby

    You REALLY make learning and reading about health a fabulously fun experience with lots of belly laughs Doc. If you’ve seen my many posts now since I found this site, you know I don’t agree with all and I am a bit of a wordy gurdy, but I want you to know my “professional” ;) disagreement/parrying detracts naught from my general appreciation and respect of your work and my recognition of magnanomy of this site. Yur awesome.

  • Frenchhorn

    This is the funniest essay ever. My sister’s doctor told her not to eat fiber. Sad.