Depending on what you read these days, it can seem like almost every food will make you ill. We are used to dairy-and gluten-containing foods being touted as toxic, and now we have a potential new nutrient enemy: Lectin.
Awareness of lectin has reached the public in part due to the publication of “The Plant Paradox”, by Dr. Steven Gundry, MD. Dr. Gundry believes that lectins are responsible for altering the gut microbiome and making people vulnerable to a range of autoimmune diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease.
What are lectins?
Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins found in many plants with the highest concentrations found in grains and legumes (beans). Other plants that contain lectin are fruits and vegetables (eg, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots, berries, watermelon), nuts, coffee, chocolate, and some herbs and spices (eg, peppermint, marjoram, nutmeg). They are considered “anti-nutrients” because they pass through the gut unchanged.
For context, another “anti-nutrient” is the one and only FIBER which was once perceived to have little if any benefit to our health because it too moved through the body unchanged. We have come a long way in our understanding of fiber and realize that it has many important roles in maintaining our health. Lectins can also be found in some animal sources such as eggs and dairy.
Kidney beans are known to have very high amounts of lectin. The good news for most of us, kidney beans aren’t eaten raw. Once soaked and cooked, the lectin content is significantly reduced and no longer poses a threat to our bodies.
As for the other sources of lectins in our diets, when we eat foods containing lectins in their raw form, sans kidney beans (and other legumes) the amount of lectin is SO LOW that it doesn’t pose a risk to our health.
Furthermore, the commonly known health benefits of consuming whole grains and legumes, have been shown to reduce inflammation and decrease the risk of chronic diseases, far outweigh any concern for the small amount of lectin found in kidney beans and other foods.
The Lectin-Free Diet is another example of focusing extensively on one nutrient when it may not even be warranted. At the moment, there is no evidence showing that lectins harm us. We do know from extensive studies that eating foods that contain lectins (such as legumes) is associated with a more healthy life, including reduced risk of cancers, heart disease, stroke, and increased likelihood of being a healthy weight. If you haven’t experienced issues related to these foods, it would seem unwise to cut them out unnecessarily.
For most people, lectins are not substances that we have to worry about. If you are having digestion issues, it is best to speak to a registered dietitian, as it may be that you have an intolerance to other components in food (for example FODMAPS). Having a consultation with a professional will allow them to pinpoint where your issues are, to avoid unnecessary eliminations.
When consuming beans, cook them thoroughly and evenly. If using a crockpot recipe that contains beans, use canned as dried beans won’t cook all the way through in a crockpot. And finally, for best protection against chronic diseases, we recommend a whole food, mostly plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with moderate amounts of lean animal protein sources.