I’ve been asked this question many times in the past, and even in the past two days.
When I’m asked what I think about lectins, I say that they are good because they perform many beneficial functions in the human body, but lectins can also be scary and even dangerous.
Because I do not specifically address the Lectins topic in my book, I believe that this article will clear up any confusion about this subject. Let’s discuss what lectins are, where you find them, and the healthy and not so healthy aspects of this protein. Finally, we will discuss what to do before consuming foods that are high in lectins, or under which conditions one should abstain from it altogether.
What are lectins and where can they be found?
In humans and animals, lectins perform vital functions as they help cell interaction. [iii] The cells in the human body happen to have lectins as cell receptors. Therefore, lectins are essential to our body, as they not only play a role in our immune system, but are actually evolutionary.[iv] Lectins attach or bind to carbohydrates and/or sugars inside the body to form glycoproteins. [v] Without them, we may not exist, as binding to sperm, eggs, as well as sperm storage in the female body, plays a role in evolutionary process.[vi] [vii] [viii] Just to be clear, females of numerous animal species store sperm for periods of time, i.e., from few hours to months, and even years. In human females, for example, sperm can be stored up to seven days, and depending on different factors, even longer. [ix] [x] [xi] Ok, enough scientific talk.
Although science is not completely clear about the role of this protein in plants, what is known is lectins serve as a potent insecticide, so bugs, and many animal species will not eat the plants.[xii] Plants, and especially seeds/grains, may have developed this mechanism for their survival throughout ages.
Lectins are proteins that are found throughout the food supply. Approximately 30% of all foods contain lectins in significant amounts.[xiii]
The highest concentration of lectins is in legumes such as soybeans, black beans, lima beans, lentils, fava beans, and red and white kidney beans, and even in green beans,[xiv] as well as peanuts.[xv] They’re also found in very high concentration in grain products such as wheat, wheat germ, barley, rye, corn, rice, and oats, [xvi] among other grains. In addition, lectins are present in high to moderate concentrations in tomatoes,[xvii] potatoes, [xviii] and even eggplants and corn. [xix]
The good lectins
Although lectins can be regarded as an insecticide that can be toxic to bugs, animal, and humans, this protein has some very important properties:
- Immune function – Plant lectins can be used to combat microbial infections.[xx]
- Antimicrobial and anti-parasitic function – Lectins can be used as “…a natural alternative for the treatment of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant microorganisms and parasites.” (Iordache, Ionita, Mitrea, Fafaneata, & Pop, 2015).[xxi]
- Lectins to combat yeast infections – lectins have the ability to penetrate the fungal wall and may even block the growth of fungus that is responsible for yeast infections.[xxii]
- Lectins to fight breast cancer – Studies show that specific form of lectins from chickpeas demonstrates anticancer activity, and one of the studies even suggests that chickpeas lectins should be employed as an “essential source for medicine leading to the treatment of breast cancer” (Gupta, Bisen, & Bhagyawant, 2018). [xxiii]
As you can see, lectins have some incredibly beneficial and even life sustaining functions, so why do they get such a bad reputation from consumers, doctors, and many diet gurus? Well, here’s why…
The bad, and the really, really bad lectins
- Those same binding properties of lectins that have to do with evolution, can also wreak havoc on our bodies. Lectins have the ability to bind to the intestinal barrier[xxiv] which prevents bad stuff (toxins, microorganisms, or even undigested proteins) from getting through. Thus, if you eat foods with large amounts of lectins, you can damage your gut wall, and all that “garbage” will go through your gut and end up where it does not belong, wreaking havoc in your body, as you will see next…
- Autoimmune disease – Autoimmune disease happens when your own immune system attacks healthy cells in your body and damages its tissue. Because lectins have the ability to permeate (make holes) through the lining of the gut, studies show that this protein can be a “gateway” to many autoimmune conditions. [xxv] Here are some examples of autoimmune conditions:
- Celiac disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Hashimoto’s Encephalopathy
- Hashimoto Thyroiditis
- Juvenile Arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Weight gain – Lectins have the ability to make you gain weight. They do that by interfering with your satiety hormone – leptin,[xxvi] [xxvii] which tells your brain to stop eating when you’re full. So, what happens is that a person is at risk of developing leptin resistance, [xxviii] where the brain does not respond well to the actions of this extremely important hormone. As a side note, according to studies, your main fat storage hormone – insulin is affected by lectins. For example, WGA or Wheat Germ Agglutinin that is found in wheat is implicated in altering sensitivity of cells inside your body to insulin[xxix]. “… (Wheat germ agglutinin, WGA) produces several alterations in the ability of fat cells to bind and respond to insulin”. [xxx]
- Cancer – A study on lectins in peanuts shows that lectins stimulated the growth of cancer cells.[xxxi] The conclusion of the study was shocking, to say the least, “As metastasis accounts for the majority of cancer-associated fatality, regular consumption of peanuts by cancer patients would therefore be expected to have an adverse effect on cancer survival.” (Zhao, Duckworth, Wang, Guo, Barrow, Pritchard,. . . Yu, 2014). [xxxii]
You’re probably thinking to yourself that we just talked about lectins as a source for curing breast cancer. You are absolutely correct. Unfortunately, there are studies that also show adverse effects of lectins, as they may even play a role in development of pancreatic[xxxiii] cancer.
- Inflammation – As the cause of a lot of the diseases ranging from heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and even asthma, happens to be chronic inflammation,[xxxiv] lectins may take the center stage, as they are inflammatory. [xxxv] [xxxvi] As you saw earlier, lectins have the ability to permeate or penetrate through the gut, [xxxvii] thus releasing “garbage” into your system, which causes inflammation. I’m certain that you’ve heard a phrase “leaky gut” in patients with celiac disease, which is one of the autoimmune disorders as discussed above.
- Antinutrient – Unfortunately, lectins have the ability to interfere with digestion and even block the absorption of necessary minerals and other nutrients in the intestinal tract.[xxxviii] “Because of their ability to bind to virtually all cell types and cause damage to several organs, lectins are widely recognized as anti-nutrients within food”!!! (De Punder & Pruimboom, 2013)[xxxix] [xl]
Under which conditions should you abstain from lectins altogether?
If you suffer from Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, Gastroenteritis, Inflammatory bowel disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, or if you suffer from any intestinal problems overall, it’s better to stay away from lectin-rich foods as much as humanly possible, as they may exacerbate the disease by causing inflammation.[xli] Case in point; when I had my numerous gut issues of the past, I avoided lectin-heavy types of foods like a plague. I’m now healed, and from time to time, I allow myself to have some of the foods that we discussed earlier, but only in small amounts. The other day I had chili with beans and tomatoes. Although it was delicious, unfortunately I felt bloated. I was able to weather this storm due to consistently keeping my health in check by “Living Wonderfully,” as these types of foods are only eaten on rare occasions.
Reducing lectins from everyday foods
Now that you have been a witness to the goodness and badness of this protein, how do we consume it, or not consume it at all?
Keep one thing in mind, foods with high concentrations of lectins are a lot more difficult to digest than animal protein, or even vegetables and fruits. Also, foods with high concentration of lectins, like legumes and grains have very high glycemic load. Yes, I’m talking about carbohydrates, but we will leave this subject for another time.
One more thing, let’s agree on something. No raw beans!!! Studies show that consuming raw beans can lead to acute gastroenteritis,[xlii] which is not to be confused with gastritis. Gastroenteritis not only causes swelling or inflammation of the lining of the stomach, but intestines as well, while gastritis affects only the lining of the stomach.[xliii] The symptoms of gastroenteritis may include diarrhea, loss of electrolytes, lactose intolerance, bacterial overgrowth in your gut, nausea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain, [xliv] among many other unpleasantries.
Keep in mind, for the most part, those pesky lectins reside in seed hulls, skins and rinds with very few exceptions. As we may not be able to completely eliminate lectins from foods, there are several ways of reducing the amount of this protein.
- Potatoes – Studies show that even if you cook potatoes, approximately 40% or more of lectins still remain due to heat resistance.[xlv]
- Legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds – Soaking, sprouting (germinating), [xlvi]and boiling are effective methods for reducing lectins activity.[xlvii] In the case of almonds, besides sprouting, getting rid of the hull (brown skin) also plays a huge role in lectin reduction.
- Tomatoes, bell peppers, pumpkins, squash, and eggplants– In addition to cooking, removing the seeds from these vegetables (whenever possible) and removing the skin, specifically from eggplants[xlviii] and squash family vegetables, will undoubtedly reduce the amount of lectins and some allergens.
- Cucumbers[xlix] – As cucumbers are rarely cooked, they must me deseeded.
The best way to reduce lectins:
- Before cooking, soak your legumes, i.e. chickpeas, seeds of peas, fava beans, lentils, and other common beans in distilled water[l] for approximately 24 hours while replacing the water at least twice or more times during the soaking period. Cook until done. Better yet, pressure cook, as pressure cooking neutralizes anti-nutrients more efficiently and in higher amounts[li] as opposed to regular boiling. Although some percentage of lectins will remain, the total amount will be significantly reduced. [lii]
- Whenever possible, try to ferment your foods. In my book you will find “Soybean products: the good, the bad, and the ugly” chapter where I show how unfermented soy (tofu, soy milk) wreaks havoc on our bodies in addition to containing substances that interfere with the absorption of different nutrients. I also discuss the really good fermented soy – miso and tempeh. The fermentation process breaks down lectins and other antinutrients so you can digest the food much easier.[liii]…And don’t forget the awesome probiotic value of fermented foods. More on that in my book.
- Now for the part where a lot of the diet gurus will be sounding an alarm… If you happen to be one of those people who eat wheat or rice, I would not order brown rice or whole wheat bread. Lectins reside in the hull of those grains, among other antinutrients and poisons that you can read about in my book. In this particular case of lectins, as sad and as scary as it sounds, refined would be a better alternative when it comes to reducing lectins, that is, if you eat these types of food.J
Although you may not completely get away from lectins, you now have a solid guideline of how to reduce the consumption of this protein in these specific foods.
The balancing act
First and foremost, as we discussed earlier, it will be next to impossible to get away from this protein, as it’s everywhere from microorganisms to viruses, to animals, and humans. [liv] In the Living Wonderfully land, we practice a balancing act.
Because all vegetables contain lectins, eliminating them may not be a very good idea because you will simply deprive yourself of much needed nutrients. So, here’s what we do:
- We limit the intake, or eliminate some of the foods that we discussed earlier altogether, as these are the highest in lectins.
- We do not purchase non-organic meats, as besides antibiotics and hormones that are predominantly present, majority are corn fed; plainly put, “Lectin city rock-and-roll!” J Therefore, organic grass-fed is what we use.
- We consume cruciferous vegetables daily including broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and even kale, collard greens, mustard greens, among many others organically grown vegetables; all in proportional amounts, i.e., some of each without overloading on one specific type. Also, not only do we consume cabbage raw, but fermented as well, as it is used as the main source of probiotic in our diet. You will find easy, old school fermented cabbage (sauerkraut) recipe in the recipes section at the end of the book.
- We consume different types of radishes, as well as, carrots, raw onion, and garlic.
- We eat very small amounts of cooked tuber vegetables such as yams, sweet potatoes, and even taro root. I’m saying small amounts not because they are bad or extremely high in lectins, but because of the tremendous glycemic load. The raw tubers, however, such as jicama, celery root, radishes, turnips, and even small amount of beets, among others, is a fair game!
Lectin blocker supplements
As with all of the other remedies for every possible disease on earth, enterprising people constantly come up with different types of lectin blockers. Just put “lectin blocker” into your search engine, and I promise, you will get pages and pages of results. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a credible study that directly discusses leptin blocking supplements and their effects. Perhaps there are reputable clinical trials that are on their way of being published. Thus, I cannot recommend any of the supplements, as I have no idea as to the side effects one may experience after taking these “remedies”.
Here’s the bottom line. Your body is your best indicator! So, listen to it, and experiment by adding, reducing, or eliminating some of the foods described in this article, as this would be a safer, and certainly a cheaper way of reducing the amount of lectins in your diet. By adding, I undoubtedly mean your raw veggies, as the plethora of vitamins and minerals contained within your raw vegetable smorgasbord may help you fight some of the problems that you may be experiencing. More on that in a different blog…