Are Lectins Really That Bad?
There is some buzz around lectins and how they may be secretly hiding in foods you may think are good for you. Some health industry marketers have jumped on the claim that lectins are, in fact, pretty harmful for your health and may be the reason you have food sensitivities or can’t seem to lose the last five pounds of weight. This is a pretty interesting claim, especially because lectins are found in foods you may be eating every day. Find out exactly what lectins are and if the lectin controversy is really all it’s hyped up to be.
Let’s start by talking about what lectins actually are.
What Are Lectins?
Basically, lectins are classified as a type of protein that has the ability to bind to sugar or carbohydrates. There are a number of different kinds of lectins, all of which have different functions, determined based on the carbohydrate they bind to. Lectins can be found in both plant and animal foods. In animals, lectins are thought to help with cell-to-cell communication. When it comes to plants, lectins are thought to hold some protective benefits by deterring animals from consuming them.
Now let’s learn how consuming lectins affects your body. When lectins enter cell membranes, they can cause cell damage or death, and when they get into the gut, they can cause damage to the lining of the intestines, which can ultimately lead to leaky gut syndrome.
Small amounts of lectins aren’t as aggressive as this may seem, but just like anything you eat too much of, too much lectin consumption can lead to more and more cell damage. How could this happen? When lectins come in contact with the specific carbohydrate they are trying to bind to, it can cause direct damage by eliciting an inflammatory immune response and may signal the body to attack its own healthy tissue. It’s a normal autoimmune response. Your body thinks it’s doing a good thing by taking out the foreign invader, but really, it’s just the inflammatory lectin that has latched itself to a carbohydrate.
Science has shown that lectins can cause some cell damage, which has led to more studies to see what other experiences people have seen after consuming lectins. Tummy discomforts, such as bloating, gas, stomach pain, cramping, and diarrhea, are reported by many people after consuming lectins. This may be because our bodies are not able to digest lectins.
Where Are Lectins Found?
Lectins are commonly found in many plant foods—mostly in nightshade vegetables such as squash or in grains and legumes. It may seem unusual that these often-considered “healthy” foods (and a staple for many of you) contain something that could cause potential harm to our bodies. While these foods are generally considered healthy, many people are unable to tolerate them due to their lectin content. However, the good news is that there are ways to reduce the lectin content if these are foods you commonly enjoy.
How to Reduce the Lectin Content in Your Food
If you notice that you consume lectin-filled foods often, a good tip to know is that cooking, fermenting, and sprouting are all great ways to reduce the number of hard-to-digest lectins found in the food.
Sprouting involves rinsing the bean or legume and adding it to a bowl with about two tablespoons of water. You can let them sit for three to 24 hours and then rinse, drain, and store them in a glass jar. You can cover the jar with a specific sprouting lid or a simple cheesecloth. Turn the jar upside down in a large bowl. Keep the jar in direct sunlight on a countertop. About every 12 hours, add water to the jar and gently swirl to coat the grains. Invert the jar again. Keep watch for sprouts that look like small tails. These should pop up in one to five days. Once they are sprouted, rinse and drain them and then store covered in the fridge for a couple of days. If the grains look slimy at any point, it’s time to toss them!
Fermenting is another option when it comes to reducing the number of lectins in certain foods. Fermenting foods can be done after the sprouting process and can help create beneficial probiotics. Fermented foods are much easier to digest. You can ferment grains using one cup of grains to two cups of warm filtered water, plus two tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice. Cover in a glass jar and allow to sit out for 12 to 24 hours. Drain and then enjoy, keeping leftovers stored in the fridge.
Is There Any Benefit to Eating Lectins?
So, are there any benefits to eating lectins? While not everyone tolerates them, those who do not find issues digesting and processing lectins may find benefits in including them in their diet. Foods such as beans and nightshade vegetables do contain health benefits like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Legumes are also a great source of plant-based protein, so vegetarians and vegans often rely on these foods as their primary protein source. If you consume these foods regularly and don’t feel like you suffer from any of the side effects commonly associated with lectin consumption, just be mindful of how you prepare them. By taking some simple steps, like cooking or fermenting these foods, you can help reduce the lectin content in your food and prevent potential inflammation or digestive upset.
The Take-Home Message
So, the question is, are lectins really that bad? While lectins can cause significant digestive disturbances in some people and lead to nutrient malabsorption, consuming them in moderation is fine. It will all depend on the individual. While some people are very sensitive to lectins, others can enjoy them in small to moderate amounts. Remember that cooking, fermenting, and sprouting lectin-rich foods can help reduce the lectin content and potentially make these foods better tolerated. You can also peel and deseed your fruits and vegetables, use a pressure cooker, and if you enjoy rice, stick to white rice. Brown rice still contains the hull that is rich in lectins.
If you find that you suffer from chronic digestive health issues, suspect you may be dealing with leaky gut syndrome, or suffer from an autoimmune disease or unexplained weight gain, then you may want to look at your diet. Looking at the number of lectin-rich foods in your diet and reducing them may ultimately be beneficial. Remember that lectins have the potential to cause inflammation in the body, weight gain, and even autoimmune issues. If consumed in excess, they may also make it difficult to absorb nutrients.
If you decide to follow a lectin-free diet, it is best to avoid grains, beans, legumes, squash, nightshade vegetables, casein A1 milk, and in-season fruit. Instead, you can replace these foods with foods much lower in lectins such as olive oil and olives, avocados, cruciferous vegetables, dark leafy greens, and cooked tubers like sweet potatoes and yucca.
The good news is that even if you do decide to follow a lectin-free diet, there are still ample other nutritious and delicious foods you can enjoy! The best part is that taking inflammation-promoting foods out of your diet may be the missing piece to the puzzle when it comes to uncovering any unexplained digestive issues.
Krispin Sullivan, CN. The Lectin Report. http://www.krispin.com/lectin.html