Lectins. Are they good? Are they bad? Is this the new “gluten-free” fad? Will you see packages that never contained lectins now proudly announce “lectin-free” in brightly colored, bold font? Well, they are good and bad, and most likely yes and yes.
Gluten-free diets became all of the rage recently as a result of their claimed inflammatory response. Some people do have gluten sensitivities and consuming gluten elicits a terrible autoimmune response – those with celiac disease. Effects can range from mild to severe resulting in damage to the small intestine. Many people who remove gluten from their diets, whether for a legitimate health sensitivity or just to jump on the bandwagon, often cite better digestive activities. This lies in the fact that gluten, the protein found in wheat and some other grains, is difficult for the human body to digest.
Like gluten, lectins are a protein. A carbohydrate-binding glycoprotein to be exact. Molecules in the category of lectins are found in just about every living organism. Good luck avoiding them. But experts on both sides of the fence explain their stance on these molecular question marks.
Lectins are found in food items often considered part of a healthy diet. You will find lectin in milk, fruit, nuts, whole grains, beans, peas, and tomatoes. Avoiding lectins and eating healthy seem to be at odds with on another. So are lectins bad? Are they neutral? Are they good? What do we do?
Lectins can be inherently toxic. In fact, many plants and animals use their lectins as a survival tactic. Depending on how the lectin is ingested, it can reduce absorption in the consumer, so they will not retain the nutrients needed to properly feed the body. So much so they are sometimes described as antinutrients.
Lectins are known to bind to sugars, more specifically carbohydrates. In doing so, they “unlock” specific carbohydrates. This causes the cells in which the carbohydrate is housed to disrupt and results in inflammation. Without the proper enzymes to break down certain lectins they can pass through the digestive tract wreaking havoc – causing nutrient deficiencies, disrupts digestion, and can even cause severe intestinal damage. If by chance these lectins leave the digestive tract, which they can do (lectins increase intestinal permeability, essentially creating their own door outside of the digestive tract), they can attach to other organs causing inflammatory diseases such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Not all lectins are bad. In fact, many are biologically neutral presenting no biological activity. They can be consumed and present no ill or beneficial effects. While lectins are found in many different animal- and plant-based foods, only about 30% of the foods we eat as part of a balanced diet contain significant amounts of them.
Even those that are found to be bad can be rendered neutral through the cooking process. For example, kidney beans consumed raw elicits gastric distress. Take those kidney beans and boil them until they soften, the toxic lectin content drops by a staggering 99%. If you are curious they go from somewhere between 20,000 to 70,000 hemagglutinating units to about 200 to 400 hemagglutinating units. You can also ferment or sprout foods that are high in lectins to reduce their content to negligible amounts.
Long-term a lectin-free diet may be difficult to maintain. Any limiting plan that cuts out a large amount of otherwise healthy foods may cause other deficiencies.
The sturdy properties of lectins that allow them to resist digestion, survive the path through the gut, and remain active after the hell-storm that is our digestive system has pharmaceutical companies reaching for them. This makes lectin primely positioned as a carrier for medications that can treat cancer, HIV, rheumatic heart disease, diabetes, ocular diseases, and other that need the medication to remain intact passing through the digestive system.
While high amounts of certain lectins may cause digestive distress, small amounts of some lectins may even help the human digestive system by benefiting the good bacteria found in the gut.
While there is a lot of information out there about lectins and their negative consequences, not a lot is known about what they do and how they work. In fact, some research shows that small amounts of certain lectins play important roles in cell growth and even immune function.
Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Do you consume foods high in lectins in a way that makes them harmful? Do you even care? Have you ever noticed before? Chances are you have never noticed the effects of this newly taboo food before, even though you have probably consumed quite a bit of these foods in the past. Or perhaps it is the unanswered question to what has ailed you all of this time when you have done exclusion diets to no avail.
Many of the foods you must avoid in a lectin-free diet can lower the risk of other health conditions such as heart and lung disease and could make it difficult to avoid weight gain. A lectin-free diet may lead to constipation with decreased dietary fiber, so mitigating that side-effect will be important to maintaining this diet.
If you are wanting to pursue a lectin-free diet, the following foods are fair game:
- cooked sweet potatoes
- leafy, green vegetables
- cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts
- pasture-raised meats
- olives or extra virgin olive oil
- A2 milk (milk containing only the A2 protein and not the A1 protein found in most commercial milk)
Limit the following foods as part of a lectin-free diet:
- nightshade vegetables: eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes
- legumes: beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts
- fruit: although in-season fruit is allowed in moderation
- grains: white flour in moderation
Avoid the following foods as part of a lectin-free diet:
- meat from corn-fed animals
- A1 milk (milk containing the A1 protein)
To avoid or to consume is entirely up to you. Just like most things in life, you decide what works best for you and your family. As for me, I will continue with the status quo.
By: By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)