Living With Lectins – To Eat Or Not To Eat?

Lectins: Up until a few years ago they weren’t on the radar for most of us, but these days – thanks to media coverage and probably a few friends who are treating lectin-rich foods as if they were radioactive – talk about lectins is seemingly everywhere.

So, what’s the fuss about? Why the lectin-o-phobia all of a sudden? How damaging are they? Should you avoid them too? Before you close the fridge door on entire food groups because of them, here’s my take on lectins.

What are lectins?

Lectins are a type of protein found in virtually all everyday foods, particularly abundant in many plants. Often considered ‘antinutrients’ because of their ability to bind to sugar and other carbohydrate molecules, They are resistant to human digestion and it’s believed that they interfere with the proper absorption of vitamins, minerals and some key proteins.

What are lectins doing in our food?

In plants, lectins assist with a variety of functions – it’s thought that they act as a low-level toxin, or defense mechanism, that helps discourage microorganisms, bugs and animals from chowing down on them. And, if a plant is ingested despite these toxic defenses, lectins may allow seeds to pass intact through animal intestines, returning them to the soil and helping to propagate the plant species.

Are lectins damaging to the gut?

The concern is that when we eat foods that are high in lectins, we’re not getting the full benefit of the nutrients we eat and we’re eating toxins which can make humans sick with gastrointestinal problems like nausea, diarrhea, bloating and in some cases vomiting. And, because we don’t digest lectins, we often produce antibodies to them. For those who eat a lot of raw, lectin-rich foods, for example, vegetarians or those following a plant-rich diet, the higher lectin intake and the resulting gastrointestinal distress can weaken the delicate gut lining, increasing permeability, triggering leaky gut syndrome, system-wide inflammation and auto-immune or allergic reactions. There’s also evidence suggesting too much lectin can encourage leptin resistance which, in turn, can promote weight gain in some individuals.

Should I eliminate lectins from my diet?

While lectins are hard to avoid no matter how healthy your diet is, we are by no means saying ditch all foods containing lectin (the list is a long one) to solve your gastrointestinal troubles. If you did, malnutrition would be a far larger problem. What we are saying is, cut back on the worst offenders (whole grains and beans) as much as possible. And, if you’re having gastrointestinal issues in spite of a healthy diet and haven’t found a solution to your troubles, lectins may be a culprit. It’ll likely do you no harm to try cutting back – but do so with guidance from an integrative nutritionist or practitioner to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need from food and supplements if needed. Secondly, if you have an auto-immune disease or heart disease, both driven by inflammation, try eliminating lectins for a couple of weeks and then re-introduce them and see how you feel.

How do I cut lectins down to size?

The good news is that processing raw foods, either through cooking, soaking and/or fermenting, can dramatically cut the amount of lectins you take in, and reduce the amount of trouble they may be causing. Keep in mind, however, you won’t be able to cook or process every last lectin down to nothing, as some types are impervious to heat.

Which foods are loaded with lectins?

Lectins are present in virtually everything we eat, but legumes (including soy and peanuts) and beans, as well as unrefined grains (including gluten), have particularly high concentrations. As do many fruits and veggies with seeds, particularly the ‘nightshades,’ like eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. Other lectin sources include factory farmed, corn fed meat, dairy products, and some nuts and seeds.

What do we at Be Well think of lectins?

At Be Well we take a cautious approach to lectins, but we don’t believe that they’re the root of all nutritional evil– in fact, in small amounts they seem to be helpful. But in a significant number of people, large amounts of lectins do seem to contribute to a number of health problems (i.e., gastrointestinal damage, leaky gut, inflammation, auto-immune issues and so on) while others experience little if any trouble at all. So, tolerance for lectins varies. It depends on your general state of health and in particular, the health of your gut as well as the bacteria that live inside it.

Thinking about reducing lectins in your diet? Tune in next week for part 2, where I’ll share simple steps to lighten your lectin load.

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