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What are lectins and why is everyone suddenly talking about them? Should I avoid them? If so, how?
Lectins are a type of protein found in most plants as a defense mechanism against insects, mold, fungi and disease.
They became a hot topic when Dr. Stephen Gundry’s book “The Plant Paradox” came out and blamed a wide range of health problems on lectins. This ignited a huge controversy because lectin-rich foods also tend to be the foods most associated with health and longevity: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Dr. Gundry’s book claimed that intake of too many lectins could cause chronic inflammation and gut damage in susceptible people. His critics claimed he was crazy because a diet rich in whole plant foods is known to reduce risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and many other chronic diseases. So what’s the deal?
A new review of the evidence was published in the journal Nutrients and made the following points:
If undercooked, beans and lentils have high levels of lectins that can be harmful and cause food poisoning...so make sure to cook your legumes thoroughly.
Cooking methods such as autoclaving, boiling, soaking, germinating, and fermenting can greatly reduce lectins in foods.
Most people should not react to lectins, when the food is prepared properly.
However, one study suggested that up to 18% of people may have some sort of immune reaction to certain undigested lectins.
Lectin-rich foods tend to be rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, flavonoids, and other very healthy compounds.
Lectin-rich foods are associated with lower markers of inflammation in animals and humans.
The authors conclude that the health-promoting aspects of lectin-rich foods far outweigh any negatives from lectins.
...but, of course, they don’t live in our world of autoimmunity, inflammation, allergic reactions, gut health issues and such. We may be those rare people who react to lectins. For those of us in that world, my suggestion is to do a self-experiment if you suspect that lectins are causing you problems. If you feel better without them, try not to give up on healthy plant foods altogether. Instead, see if you can identify which exact foods are causing you problems, and only avoid those, or else try preparing high-lectin foods in ways that reduce or inactivate lectins enough to be tolerated. These methods include boiling, autoclave/pressure cooking, soaking, seeding, peeling, fermenting or germinating/sprouting. For example…
Instead of raw or roasted nuts or seeds, try sprouted nuts or seeds.
Instead of raw cabbage, try sauerkraut or kim chi.
Instead of regular rice try pressure-cooked rice.
Instead of zucchini, try cooked peeled and seeded zucchini.
If that works, then you can eat your cake (err...plant foods) and have it, too. Good luck! Let us know how it goes!
Petroski, W.; Minich, D.M. Is There Such a Thing as “Anti-Nutrients”? A Narrative Review of Perceived Problematic Plant Compounds. Nutrients 2020, 12, 2929.