What are Lectins?
Lectins are a type of protein that help bind carbohydrates in plants. Here’s one you’ve definitely heard of: Gluten! The bad boy of nutrition. Lectins are particularly found in legumes, whole grains, and nightshade vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
While they have come under fire lately for their role in certain health woes, they didn’t always have this reputation. Many lectin-loaded foods have been staples of cultural diets for a long time, with no cause for concern.
Lectins are generally found in the skin and seeds of a plant. Just like animals may have a first line of defence like sharp claws, plants have lectins to protect them. Protection from being eaten as well as from harmful microorganisms, pests, and insects.
Plants can’t do much to defend themselves. Their goal is to protect their seeds even once the plant has been eaten. Lectins help the seeds pass through an animal’s digestive system and stay intact.
Do They Affect Your Digestion?
Humans don’t digest lectins, which means they pass through our digestive system largely unchanged. However, our immune system can sometimes produce antibodies against them, causing an immune response or an allergic reaction.
Undigested, they may enter our bloodstream via the digestive tract. If this happens, our immune system produces antibodies against them.
People that develop food intolerances to certain lectin-containing plants may already have existing gut-health concerns like Crohn’s or Coeliac disease. In this case, even small amounts of lectins cause symptoms like inflammation, joint aches, or skin flare-ups.
Lectins may contribute to increased gut permeability (what is known as ‘leaky gut’). This means that fragments of undigested protein within the small intestine enter the bloodstream, causing an immune response against them. This can result in an allergic reaction. With consistent exposure, autoimmune disease can develop. Such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Are Lectins All Bad?
While this information sounds alarming, and you may want to clear out your pantry, remember this; you can reduce lectins from your food before eating them. By soaking or cooking them, or letting the beans sprout, you can reduce the quantity of lectins they possess.
Can They be Good for You!
There are helpful lectins that can reduce the likelihood of getting certain diseases, like cancer. The body also uses lectins to regulate immune responses.
Lectin-rich foods such as peppers, tomatoes, soybeans, and potatoes among other foods – are sources of B-Complex vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Better sources of B-Complex vitamins for cell renewal are animal products. Such as milk, cheese, eggs, chicken, red meat, and fish.
Here are a few things you can do if you think you may be intolerant to lectins:
- Let your grains soak or ferment for a while, or let them spout if you are consuming them raw
- Cooking your lectin-rich food will get rid of the lectins
- Ensure that you peel and de-seed vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and potatoes
- If all else fails, work through a process of elimination, and reduce foods one at a time
It is important to remember that eating foods with a high amount of active lectins is not that easy. Especially because most of these foods aren’t generally eaten raw.
Currently, there is no concrete, scientific evidence to support the view that lectin-containing foods are harmful in the longterm to our health1.
While certain people may have more sensitivity, in general, the answers to whether or not to avoid them are nuanced and subjective.
If you don’t want to eliminate grains, legumes and nightshades from your diet entirely, reduce lectin content through soaking and cooking.
If you’d like more information on lectins and how they can react in the body, Dr. Gundry has written an interesting book on the subject called The Plant Paradox.