Whenever I host a lunch & learn at a company, the most common questions I get asked are about special diets and if they’re worth the hype. I like addressing them in blogs like this because it’s never a black and white answer. I wish there was one diet that would work for every single one of you, but we’re all so unique! I guess I wouldn’t have a job though if that were the case. ;)
One of the latest trendy diets circulating the internet is the lectin-free diet. Though lectins have been relatively well recognized in the nutrition-world for some time, they gained popularity recently when Kelly Clarkson credited a lectin-free diet for helping her lose 37 pounds and when the book, The Plant Paradox, came out recently. While I can’t speak to its ability to help you drop 40 pounds, it’s worth explaining what lectins are, who (if anyone) a low lectin diet might be suitable for, and if you should do it.
Lectins are a type of protein found in nearly all plants and animals that bind to the sugar molecules that cover the surface of most cells in the body. Many lectins are health-promoting, and the body uses them to achieve many basic functions, like enabling cells to interact with and attach to one another, and regulating inflammation. On the other hand, some lectins can also disrupt this process and contribute to inflammation. Consuming raw kidney beans, for example, can actually be lethal because the naturally occurring lectins will bind to the sugar coating on red blood cells and cause them to stick or clot together.
Lectins in plants can be viewed as a kind of ‘survival’ or’ defense mechanism’ against pests, insects and other microorganisms. Because lectins don’t break down in digestion and they enter the bloodstream unchanged, it’s believed that lectins may have evolved as a way for seeds to remain intact as they passed through human or animals’ digestive systems.
They’re found in a wide range of foods, but are especially abundant in raw legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts) and grains, dairy products and certain vegetables (nightshades, squash). The majority of lectins in seeds and grains are in the seed coat, which is why soaking and sprouting these foods before you eat them, which removes some of this coating, reduces the lectin content and makes them easier to digest in general.
Because of how they interact with cells, lectins can damage and cause inflammation in your GI tract and lead to something you’ve likely heard me talk about a lot - leaky gut. This is important because the purpose of the cells lining the GI tract is to let the good stuff in (like nutrients) and keep the bad stuff out (food additives, pesticides, harmful bacteria, etc). When things that don’t belong in your blood enter your bloodstream, your body recognizes them as alien and mounts an immune response.
Remember, lectins don’t get digested and can actually enter your bloodstream unchanged, so damage aside, they too can trigger an immune response. For some people, this can result in allergy-like reactions, as well as inflammation throughout the body, with symptoms like skin rashes or joint pain. It may not be a coincidence that the top 8 food allergens also contain higher amounts of lectins (including: dairy, egg, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish).
There are also many chronic disorders that may be correlated with leaky gut, namely autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s, Celiac Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Researchers have even noted that children with autism have very high rates of leaky gut and similar inflammatory GI tract diseases.
You don’t necessarily have to avoid lectins, but it’s worth knowing how to reduce the lectins in high lectin foods. The saying “everything old is new again” seems to be particularly relevant when it comes to nutrition. By this I mean that traditional food preparation methods are some of the best ways to reduce the lectin content of foods.
Here are ways to reduce lectins in food:
I don’t have a clear cut answer for you, but here are some things to consider. The average, healthy person will benefit from a varied diet that includes lectins that are prepared properly (i.e. soaked, sprouted, cooked). The health benefits of many lectin containing foods are well proven - like the fact that legumes can improve the risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.
However, if you’re someone with a leaky gut, an autoimmune disease, an inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s or IBD, or you have multiple food sensitivities, reducing your lectin consumption may be helpful, particularly while you heal. Many of our clients with these health issues tend to feel better when their carbohydrates come from fruits and vegetables instead of legumes and grains.
Another factor when considering a specific way of eating is whether it’s manageable to actually do, or will just create more stress and unhappiness trying to follow it. Stress is a massive factor in gut health, and while I’ve never eaten a lectin free diet, I imagine it would be pretty darn hard to remove all legumes, squash, grains, nightshade vegetables, and many fruit.
To sum up, eating a low lectin diet for a period of time could be beneficial, but it might not actually be where you need to focus your efforts. When we work with clients one-on-one we always take a personalized approach to dietary and lifestyle recommendations. If you’re interested in learning more about how we work one-on-one with clients, click here to book an info session with a Holistic Nutritionist on our team.