Move over gluten. There’s a bigger, badder anti-nutrient in town. It appears that lectins are the most recent evil in the healthy eating world. These anti-nutrients are the latest focus of a few health gurus who advise to avoid them at all costs. Avoiding lectins completely is difficult, however, because they are found in almost every plant and animal food to some degree. Lectins are concentrated in foods that we consider healthy and found in foods that have been the foundation of human diets for thousands of years.
We may wonder why, if lectins are so dangerous, how they remained in human diets throughout the centuries? The answer comes down to human ingenuity and preparation methods. Cultures developed various preparation methods to neutralize lectins’ harmful effects and maximize food’s nutritional value. Unfortunately, we now value speed and convenience over time honored food preparation. One might conclude that adverse reactions to lectin containing foods are not necessarily attributed to the foods themselves, but the dismissal of traditional preparation methods that minimize lectin levels and boost digestibility,
What Are Lectins and How do they Harm Us?
Lectins are proteins that function as a plants’ built in defense mechanism against predators, be they microorganisms, bugs, four legged mammals, or humans. Many types of lectins harm humans by damaging the endothelial lining of the intestinal wall faster than it can heal itself. Damaged intestinal walls allow microscopic particles including harmful lectins to pass into the body cavity thus activating the body’s immune system and causing systemic inflammation. Once in the body lectins can also attach to organs and cause damage.
This sounds terrible, I know, but for healthy individuals small amounts of lectins in our diet are not problematic. Most of the time, foods’ nutritional value is greater than the negative effect of lectins. However, lectins can be harmful in concentrated amounts, which is why it is worth examining the lectin content of our daily diets. For those individuals already suffering from auto-immune conditions, systemic inflammation, arthritis, or malabsorption problems, avoidance of lectins is recommended.
To complicate the matter, not all lectins are created equal. It’s erroneous to over-generalize all lectins as harmful. True, some lectins in common foods such as those found in undercooked kidney beans cause extreme illness. Other lectins, however, are beneficial to our health and are, in fact, necessary for proper immune system function. Those found in bananas are found to fight the HIV virus. Many Chinese herbs and medicinal foods attribute their therapeutic actions to lectins. Bitter melon is one of those foods. It contains a lectin that increases insulin sensitivity, thus lowering blood sugar.
Good Food, Bad Lectins
What do tomatoes, bell peppers, and goji berries have in common? They are all members of the nightshade plant family. These plants contain high levels of lectins that many people are sensitive to. However, most nightshades have high levels of phytonutrients that outweigh their lectin content. Think about lycopene in tomatoes and capsanthin in red bell peppers, the most potent of all carotenoids. Then there are legumes which contain high levels of lectins, but also are rich in protein, fiber, and iron. The beneficial nutrients in legumes have made them a food staple in many cultures throughout the world. By looking at these two examples you can easily see that by eating a seemingly healthy diet, one can inadvertently load up on lectins and suffer ill effects.
How do We Reduce Lectins?
As mentioned above, the trend among many nutrition gurus is to recommend lectin free diets. This may be necessary for people who suffer from severe systemic inflammation or auto-immune conditions, but it is not necessary for most people. By cutting out all foods that contain lectins, one would have to cut out large swaths of food groups and eat an extremely limited diet. This practice sets one up for other types of nutritional deficiencies. In the second part of this article, we will look at preparation methods that reduce lectins and allow us to consume a wide variety of foods without suffering damaging effects.