These days, it feels like there’s a diet available to villainize almost every food group. Cutting gluten, sugar, dairy, or FODMAPs from your meals might be the solution to your health problems, but it’s hard to be sure.
Recently, there’s an increasing number of people interested in learning about lectins. Many have heard that cutting these compounds out of their diet will improve digestion, but they aren’t sure what to believe or where to start. To help distill some of those rumours, I’ve written this article so we can dive deeper into the reality of lectins and help you understand their impacts on your health. By the end, your biggest questions about the health effects of lectins should be answered.
What are Lectins?
Lectins are a class of protein that naturally bind to carbohydrates. They are found in significant quantities in almost a third of standard foods, though they are primarily concentrated in grains and legumes. Don’t confuse lectins with leptins, which are peptide hormones that are produced in your fat tissue. Instead, lectins are typically located in the parts of seeds that turn into leaves when they sprout, which is known as the cotyledon.
An easy way to think of lectins is to consider them like tiny hooks that attach viruses, bacteria, or other molecules to each other. By binding to cell membranes, they let particles stick together.
Despite what you’ve likely heard, lectins are critical for good health. They are a component of numerous biological systems both within your body and the natural world. However, some people experience sensitivities to them that can lead to health problems. For instance, if you’re lacking the enzymes necessary for digesting them, lectins can enter your bloodstream and trigger problems. Over time, they can also cause damage to your intestinal walls, which can be a factor in health conditions like leaky gut disease.
Why do these compounds have the potential to cause problems? That’s partly explained by the properties of antinutrients.
About Anti Nutrients
There’s still some confusion about the importance of lectins, but it’s clear that they work in plants as a defense against pests, insects, and microorganisms. Designed to be resistant to digestion, the compounds help seeds pass through the digestive system without breaking down. For this reason, they are classified as anti-nutrients, meaning that they can interfere with your ability to absorb vitamins.
Why is this a problem? Some of the critical health problems caused by lectins are as follows:
Leaky Gut Syndrome
In a healthy digestive system, cells are tightly packed in tight junctions. This prevents unwanted compounds from leaking through and entering the bloodstream. While lectins tend to remain unaltered when they pass through your stomach, their Velcro-like qualities let them attach to the lining of your intestines. This causes them to temporarily thicken the walls, which affects your ability to absorb nutrients while making it difficult for your system to keep cells functioning normally.
While cells can typically restore intestinal wall damage without much issue, lectins hinder the reconstruction process and compromise overall gut functioning. Consequently, you develop what is called leaky gut syndrome, a chronic condition that leads to numerous health problems like nutrient deficiency, chronic inflammation, and digestive pain.
Lectins are considered to have a negative impact on your body’s ability to fight disease. That’s because the compounds can attack antibodies, which are compounds that help your immune system fight disease. In other words, having lectins bound within your body tissues can cause the body to attack itself. A primary example of this is celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by the lectin known as wheat gliadin. Those who are naturally sensitive to this lectin likely have a deficiency in their system that the compound can capitalize on. Rheumatoid arthritis is another autoimmune disorder considered to be affected by lectins.
How to Know if You Should Avoid Lectins
Considering these health effects, I don’t blame you for wanting to banish lectins from your diet permanently. However, the reality is slightly more nuanced. While lectins can be damaging (even poisonous) in certain situations, the amounts present in a standard diet are rarely enough to put you at risk. So as long as you prepare lectin-rich foods properly, you aren’t likely to experience severe side effects.
However, for those with pre-existing digestive issues or autoimmune diseases, a lectin sensitivity might be a more significant concern. Limiting the levels in your diet may improve your symptoms, and some people might even benefit from a lectin-free diet.
What is a Lectin-free Diet?
As the name implies, a lectin-free diet requires you to remove all high-lectin foods from your diet, including whole grains, quinoa, nightshade vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and all legumes. Other foods that need to be strictly limited include dairy, conventionally raised meat (due to potential contaminants) and most fruits. The foods that you can fill up on instead are naturally low in lectins, including leafy greens, mushrooms, asparagus, pasture-raised meats, and nuts and seeds that have been soaked or processed.
A low-lectin diet might sound straightforward, but the reality is that lectins are often found in otherwise healthy foods, and cutting these entirely out of your diet can lead to a deficiency in crucial nutrients. Research indicates that reducing lectin consumption can have positive results for those with cardiovascular disease, and it’s a proven strategy for weight loss as well. However, others are skeptical that removing large quantities of fruits and vegetables from your diet can be healthy, especially since fewer than a third of Canadians get approximately five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
Another complication is that lectin foods are proven successful for weight loss in the right situation. Research shows that whole grain consumption can be positively associated with maintaining a healthy weight, and another study showed that those who regularly ate beans lost more weight than those who didn’t.
For these reasons, a better long-term solution might be to limit the lectins in your food, rather than eliminating them. Thankfully, there are easy ways to make that happen.
How to Lower Your Food’s Lectin Levels.
Lectins serve as an important biological process for both plants and your body, and they aren’t something you should be concerned about if your levels stay under control. Certain foods will put you at higher risk of consuming too many, but there are steps you can take to limit your levels when you eat them.
The worst lectins for your body are typically found in legumes, which is the broad categorization for beans that includes chickpeas, lentils, peas, kidney, and far more. Other foods filled with the compound include cereal grains, potatoes, seeds, and nuts.
Some types of lectins are bad news for everyone. For instance, raw red kidney beans contain a compound called phytohaemagglutinin that can cause symptoms like severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea if you eat as few as four or five. Cooking the beans dramatically limits this compound, as it reduces their levels from approximately 50,000 lectin units to less than 400.
Cooking Out the Lectin Content
This isn’t true only for kidney beans; research proves that the best way to neutralize lectins is by cooking them out of your food. As few as fifteen minutes of cooking almost eliminates bean’s lectin content, so long as you boil them. It’s important to note that lectins are resistant to dry heat, meaning that baking with legume-based flours won’t reduce their lectin content.
Another way to balance out lectin levels is by consuming more carbohydrates. Lectins naturally bind to carbohydrates, which means that they can significantly reduce the amount left to wreak havoc on your digestive system. The good news is that many lectin-rich foods are also filled with carbs, so this likely isn’t something you need to pay too much attention to. But, to better balance your levels, consider always serving your beans with a side of rice.
You can also negate lectin content by soaking or sprouting the beans and seeds that contain lectins. This causes their anti-nutrient content to break down, which breaks down both the lectins and phytates. The longer you let the seedlings sprout, the fewer lectins will remain, as they are primarily contained within the seed coat. Soaking works well, so long as you rinse the beans afterward and cook them with fresh water.
Fermenting the food also reduces the lectin content, as beneficial bacteria will break them down. If you have a lectin sensitivity, consider filling your diet with foods like kimchi, sourdough bread, miso, and homemade pickles.
For those trying to avoid lectins, it’s confusing what foods are okay to consume. Canned beans are a safe choice, as the heating treatment during the canning process is strong enough to deactivate most of the compounds.
My Final Opinion: Will Going Lectin-free Aid Your Health?
Going lectin-free is trendy right now, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the right solution for you. Eliminating lectin-rich foods from your diet might solve some of your stomach problems, but there’s also a chance it will merely make it harder for you to get in your daily doses of nutrition.
So what’s my advice? Always listen to your body. It’s amazing how we can pick up clues on a daily level if we just pay attention to how we feel after a meal. If you’re having severe digestive issues, I highly recommend booking an appointment with a functional medicine practitioner so that you can get to the root of your health concerns . You may benefit from limiting your lectins, but the problem is equally likely to be caused by something else. If you make an appointment with an expert rather than trying to self-diagnose, there’s less risk that you’ll cut out beneficial foods from your diet unnecessarily. At The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine, I can work with you to develop an eating plan that addresses your health concerns and helps you cut out lectins if necessary.
I am happy to offer a Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session for all potential patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person. It provides an opportunity for you to learn more about the services I offer and how they can be of benefit to you.
Please schedule an appointment today! Your best health awaits.
Dr. John Dempster
The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine