The rise of an anti-inflammatory diet and gut health has reached a high, and now, more than ever, we’re focused on eating healing foods that help our digestive system function properly. But a relatively new eating style that’s focused on reducing lectins from your diet has stepped into the spotlight, and here’s what you need to know.
Lectins are a protein that is found in the seeds of plants like legumes, beans, grains, corn, certain other fruits and vegetables, and milk. Lectins are not digested by the body and block some nutrients from being absorbed by your body during the digestive process.
Since it varies from person to person (as do other irritants and food sensitivities), the way we digest lectins could not be the same, and our response to consuming them could be entirely different.
While lectins may have a bad rep, they can actually help the good bacteria in your gut with its basic functions. However, for the most part, they have been linked to gut damage and a less-than-productive GI tract (think: leaky gut).
“Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins present in most plants, especially seeds and tubers like cereals, potatoes, and beans,” writes allergist David L. J. Freed in the BMJ journal. “Until recently their main use was as histology and blood transfusion reagents, but in the past two decades we have realized that many lectins are (a) toxic, inflammatory, or both; (b) resistant to cooking and digestive enzymes, and (c) present in much of our food. It is thus no surprise that they sometimes cause ‘food poisoning.’ But the really disturbing finding came with the discovery in 1989 that some food lectins get past the gut wall and deposit themselves in distant organs.”
In 2017, Dr. Steven R. Gundry’s book, The Plant Paradox, brought to light the possible damaging effects of a high-lectin diet. Gluten, he notes, has been in the diet world for years, and we’ve seen the benefits that a gluten-free diet can have on someone with a gluten sensitivity or Celiac’s disease. But gluten, Dr. Gundry says, is just one lectin in the plant-food world. These lectins, which were produced thousands of years ago by the plants to protect themselves against invaders like insects, have been digested by humans, and have caused similar damage to our insides.
When these lectins enter our body, they tear away at the lining of our intestines, Dr. Gundry writes. When they are in our digestive system, they confuse our body with their presence—we think it’s just another protein, but the truth is very far from it. With this “molecular mimicry,” he says, and by blocking off the vital communications between our cells, these lectin proteins cause our body’s basic fat-loss and fat-burning systems to become confused, leading to fat gain and retention.
As part of The Plant Paradox way of eating, avoiding or entirely cutting out certain groups of foods could be the answer to your inflammation woes. Here are the main types of foods you should cut out to see a digestive health change:
The main lectin-holding foods group is legumes, which consist of beans, lentils, peas, and even peanuts (yes, peanuts are a legume!).
When it comes to consuming beans and lentils, experts suggest first soaking the beans, and not rushing the cooking process. If the fiber benefits of beans outweigh the possible gut risks (or if you don’t have underlying gut issues), you might want to keep these foods in your diet. But if you find yourself with constant gastrointestinal issues, ditching the legumes might be your best bet—and they might save you from gas issues, as well.
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are all out on the lectin-free diet. These vegetables have long been tied to leaky gut and intestinal issues and for some, may cause a reaction similar to what gluten or dairy causes in others.
These foods, specifically, contain peels that contain the majority of lectins, so if you’re looking to continue keeping nightshades on your menu plan, you should both peel and deseed them.
Fruits, for the most part, are loaded with seeds. Think of berries, apples, and other fruits that contain seeds on the outside, and on the inside. Those seeds are unavoidable and loaded with natural sugars.
But your solution, Dr. Gundry notes, is to eat them in-season. That means opting for watermelon, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries in the summer, and avoiding them at other times of the year, and loading up your cart with grapes in the fall and grapefruits, clementines, and blood oranges in the winter and spring.
Corn, Dr. Gundry notes, has been grown and harvested throughout America as a food for both humans and animals—it’s the main food diet for cows and other free-range animals.
Since it’s naturally high in lectin, and an ingredient in some of the world’s most common food additives, it’s become tough to avoid the presence of corn in our day-to-day meals. The American diet has, after all, become dependent on corn as the main food source both for people and for animals so to go lectin-free, you’ll want to cut out corn and free-range meats and chicken. Instead, go for pasture-raised, Dr. Gundry suggests, which means the animals do not consume corn.
Milk that is produced in the United States contains A1 lectins, even if its organic. Cows from Europe tend to produce a different lectin protein called A2, which is more tolerable by the ingestive system, but for people who tend to be lactose intolerant, cutting out all A1 products is a good first step.
If you’re able to find A2 milk or milk made from goats or buffalo, you should still only drink them in very small amounts. Cutting back on these foods—or avoiding entirely—comes highly recommended.