Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Lectin Paradox (Part 3/3)

The Lectin Paradox (Part 3/3)

Myth #3: A Lectin-Free Diet is the Only Solution.

Last week, we learned that the status of your gut health is a major factor in your ability to tolerate lectins. But is a lectin-free diet the only solution to healing lectin issues and your gut?

Considering all of the uncomfortable side effects of lectins — like nausea, bloating, and abdominal pain — you might wonder whether avoiding lectins altogether is, in fact, the ONLY answer to lectin intolerance. But in my mind, this is not necessarily true. In fact, I could go as far as to say this is an unsustainable and even narrow-minded solution.

So, this week, I’ll be debunking our third and final lectin myth for August: The myth that a lectin-free diet is the only solution to lectin intolerance.

Why we shouldn’t take an “all or nothing” approach to lectins

Many people think that lectin issues can only be solved by following a very restrictive diet, but the truth is, the research just doesn’t support that conclusion. As the authors of a paper published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology wrote “As a result of their potential for toxicity and their ‘anti-nutritional effects’ it is almost inevitable that lectin exclusion could well become a big food fad.” And just as they predicted, lectin-free diets have become increasingly popular and trendy. However, the researchers also write that: “Consequently, now is the time to resume research on this ubiquitous family of proteins so that we fully understand their role in health and disease.” 34

In other words, we need more human studies on lectins before we can say that lectins should be completely avoided. Most of the research on lectins is relatively old, and most are animal studies, which means the results of those studies will not necessarily apply to humans. 35 Additionally, most animal studies used very large amounts of lectins — much more than you or I would actually eat in a single sitting or even one day.

And as we learned when we debunked Myth #1 that “all lectin-containing foods are bad for you,” the concentration of lectins in food matters, as does the type. For example, in most of these studies the animals received lectins from raw legumes, which are the most irritating type of lectins and a type of lectin that I can safely say that humans should never eat raw.

In addition, some foods high in lectins also contain other plant compounds that can irritate the gut. For example, peanuts are high in lectins, but they may also be contaminated with aflatoxin, a mold that can potentially be a liver carcinogen in animals and even humans. 37 Likewise, wheat is not only lectin-rich, but also contains gluten, which the research of Dr. Alessio Fasano shows can contribute to a leaky gut, inflammation, autoimmune disease, and more. In other words, it isn’t just the lectins in wheat that are problematic. The picture is much more complex than what it may seem to us if we’re looking for a simple explanation.

And even if you do ingest lectins and other irritating ingredients, if you have a healthy gut, you may still be able to tolerate them just fine.

Why a lectin-elimination diet is smarter than a lectin-free diet

Research shows that those with a healthy gut microbiota — a gut with a healthy balance of the right gut bacteria — are capable of eliminating problematic substances such as, lectins, gliadins from wheat, mycotoxins from peanuts, and other common gut irritants. 39 Problems occur, however, when a patient has an unhealthy gut (we learned all about this last week when we debunked lectin myth #2 — “everyone has a lectin issue”).

When someone with a lack of adequate digestive enzymes eats too many lectins, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies, poor digestion, gut damage, and more. 40 For example, if you have underlying digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome, you might be more sensitive to lectins and have side effects. 44 For those patients, the body eventually makes antibodies against lectin, 41 which can lead to autoimmune diseases due to shared similarities between the lectin amino acid sequences and body tissues. 42 For people with gut problems, eating too many lectins can also impact the microbiome, further augmenting and contributing to any underlying dysbiosis or other gut imbalances. 43

However, the way this cycle plays out can vary greatly from patient to patient, and therefore, you never know exactly how you’ll react to different types of lectins. Some patients, for instance, have trouble with nightshade vegetables, which can cause inflammation in patients with underlying inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis. 46 These vegetables, which include eggplant, produce alkaloids. For most people, they aren’t a problem but for people with inflammatory conditions, even tiny amounts of nightshades can activate the immune system and increase inflammation and pain in the body.

For sensitive individuals, instead of eliminating all lectins for good, I often use an elimination diet to determine which lectin-containing foods are creating the real trouble 45

Almost everyone benefits from eliminating other lectin-containing foods and a lectin-free diet does provide some benefits. It might lower gut inflammation, for instance, which will decrease the body-wide inflammation that contributes to most diseases. 47 However, in my opinion, it is just a path to healing the true underlying issue — your imbalanced gut health.
In other words, I don’t believe that everyone needs to follow a lectin-free diet forever to be healthy. A lectin-free diet can feel incredibly restrictive, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. You’ll miss out on all the other nutrients that lectin-containing fruits and vegetables provide, including dietary fiber. 48 Dietary fibers in these foods feed your good gut bugs, increasing their number and diversity and creating a stronger gut wall. Meanwhile, a healthier gut wall lowers inflammation, protects against obesity, and so much more. 49

Blue Zones of the World - Map

Click to enlarge

In addition, as I said before, lectin-containing diets have often been characteristic of the Blue Zones, where people live to 100 years old and above. How do you explain that?

Any health practitioners saying that lectins are the sole culprit and that they should be avoided completely are doing you a disservice.

They are also failing to mention the very important fact that how you prepare lectin-containing foods matters.

Because as it turns out, there are ways to prepare lectins that make them easier to digest and less harmful for your body.

How to make lectins less harmful to your body

If you eat lectin-containing foods, such as legumes, uncooked, they can cause an upset stomach. That explains why you may have felt sick if you’ve ever eaten beans that aren’t fully cooked. 13 But throughout the ages, traditional food preparation techniques have evolved to minimize the lectin content of certain foods and therefore, minimize their harmful impact on humans and their guts.

For example, cooking legumes partially neutralizes the lectins. 36 This works, because when you cook a plant food, heat breaks down the starch into smaller carbohydrates that are easier to digest. When lectins attach to these smaller carbohydrates, the body can more easily remove them. 51 The same process will occur in other non-heat methods, too. Listed below are my top five favorite ways to do just that.

5 Ways to Make Lectin-Containing Foods More Gut-Friendly

…So You Can Enjoy Lectin-Containing Foods Again

Peeling & Deseeding Eggplant

Peeling & Deseeding

This comes as a surprise to many, but the part of the plant with the highest lectin content is the seed or peel. That’s why it’s imperative that when you cook lectin-rich foods like eggplant or squash, you take the seeds out and peel them. You can use a knife or a traditional peeler for this; or for some foods, like tomatoes, boiling them for a few minutes can make the skin easy to remove.


One great way to reduce the lectin content of foods is to soak them overnight. For example, you can soak beans overnight by placing them in a container and adding baking soda and water. Then, drain, rinse, and cook the beans like you normally would. 53

Soaking Legumes
Sprouted Grains


To sprout grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts, simply soak them overnight. Then, keep them in a sprouting jar to drain. Rinse two to three times daily. They will be ready in two to four days when the sprout becomes about one-fourth of an inch. Dry completely and you can store in your refrigerator for about three days. 54

Pressure Cooking

It’s time to grab that InstantPot you’ve been meaning to use! Pressure cooking is a great option because it’s fast; for example, you only need to cook beans on high heat in a pressure cooker for about 10 minutes before they are safer to eat. Depending on the specific bean, you can cook them in minutes.

Pressure Cooking
Fermenting Food - Sauerkraut


Fermenting is a great way to reduce lectin content for a dual benefit, because beneficial bacteria break down lectins and other irritating components in food, while helping seed your gut with healthy flora. It won’t make the lectin content zero, but it can help keep it under a certain threshold so that you don’t experience symptoms; plus, fermented foods also inoculate your gut with more good bacteria. You can buy fermented foods or learn to do it yourself. If you want to start fermenting foods, check out my friend Summer Bock’s course on fermentation here.

Carefully preparing and cooking lectin-containing foods can reduce their negative impacts. For someone with a healthy gut, the concentration of lectins in foods prepared in these ways would be far too low to create problems. 55

The bottom line on lectin issues

Like with many debates in the nutrition world, when it comes to lectins, we have to challenge existing beliefs: Are all lectins REALLY bad? Does everyone have a lectin issue? Is a lectin-free diet the ONLY solution? As it turns out, these are all myths — the lectin issue is much more nuanced than we’ve given it credit for.

We simply cannot demonize a food group solely based on animal and in vitro studies, without looking at the human gut terrain.

Based on my experience as a functional gut specialist, I have found that an unhealthy gut and imbalanced microflora, with its health consequences, including a leaky gut, is what really makes people susceptible to the ill-effects of lectins. A lectin-free diet is not a permanent solution; it’s merely a bandaid for the real problem — a disordered gut microbiome and damaged gut lining.

HAPPY GUT - 28-Day Cleanse Bundle

The real path to healing from lectin issues is healing the gut, not following a lectin-free diet permanently. Luckily, that is what I set out to help you do through my Gut C.A.R.E. Program — the very program that led me to heal my gut as well as enjoy once more, some of my favorite lectin-containing foods. And you can do this too, today, by taking that very first step to cleansing and healing your gut with the HAPPY GUT® REBOOT: 28-Day Cleanse, powered by my Gut C.A.R.E. Program.

The Lectin paradox (Part 2 of 3)

The Lectin Paradox (Part 2/3)

Myth #2: Everyone Has a Lectin Issue.

Are you enjoying the abundance and diversity of produce available in August? This time of year I look forward to my weekly trips to the farmer’s market. And yet, what good would it be if you can’t eat the foods you most enjoy? Last week, we debunked the pervasive myth that all lectin-containing foods are bad when we learned that lectins come in different forms and that some may even have health benefits.

But before you go stocking your reusable shopping bags with tomatoes, peppers, and black beans, we have to face the reality that even though not all lectins are equally bad, many of us still experience extremely unforgettable symptoms — like bloating, gas, headaches, and even vomiting — after eating them. What gives? 

Answering this question forces me to challenge yet another extremely common lectin myth, which is that everyone has a lectin issue. Does everyone REALLY have a lectin issue? And if so, why has this become a problem recently when it seemingly hasn’t been in the past?

The simple fact that not everyone experiences side effects from lectins should be the first big hint that ‘No, we don’t all have a lectin issue.’

I’ve long suspected there’s another unseen factor working behind the scenes and causing some to develop an intolerance to lectins, whereas others do not. 

But what is this factor? 

This week, we’re diving into what I believe is the true root cause of so-called lectin issues. And surprise! It doesn’t have much to do with lectins at all, even though lectins can contribute to the problem. 

In my practice, I’ve seen dozens of patients go from being lectin intolerant to lectin tolerant by healing their gut, which I believe is the underlying factor in many lectin issues.

Understanding the Gut-Lectin Connection

I’ve observed firsthand what a huge role your gut plays in how damaging lectins can be. You see, your gut harbors about a hundred trillion microbes, which include up to a thousand different species of bacteria, a few dozen types of yeasts and fungi, an unknown number of viruses, and an occasional worm. Collectively, these are called the “gut microbiome.”

Our understanding of the human gut microbiome is still in its infancy, but newer research shows that it can impact human health and illness in many different ways, including affects our mood, immune systems, energy levels, and our ability to tolerate various foods, including lectins. 

In a healthy gut, everything functions optimally and there is a healthy balance between beneficial bacteria. On a day-to-day level, this means the gut houses a world of friendly, diverse good bacteria that help us digest our food, produce vitamins, and keep unfriendly gut organisms in check. 

When the gut is healthy, it also: 

  • Tells you when you’re full. A healthy gut sends accurate signals to the brain when you are full so that you do not overeat, which means you feel satiated but not overly full after meals. Check out last week’s blog to learn about the connection between leptin and lectin intolerance. 
  • Helps you break down food into absorbable nutrients. A healthy gut secretes just the right amount of digestive juices at the right time, which means that all your food is digested into its component parts. This includes the ability to break down and digest foods rich in lectins. 
  • Supports a healthy gut barrier. A healthy gut has a discerning gut barrier, which means the gut wall allows nutrients to be absorbed but is able to block bacteria, yeast, and other ingredients from entering the bloodstream and causing damage. 

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have a healthy gut. If your gut is unhealthy, you will inevitably suffer from dysbiosis—an imbalance between good and bad bugs in the gut. You may not even know you have a dysbiosis, but what you do know is you feel bloated, icky, tired, mentally foggy, and achy all over. 

But what causes an unhealthy gut in the first place? There are certain lifestyle factors that can impact the health status of our guts. For example, how often you have bowel movements and the medications you take can impact the growth of gut bugs. In fact, antibiotics are probably the number one worldwide culprit for dysbiosis, because while they do the important job of killing harmful bacteria in the body, it can also wipe out the beneficial ones. As you might already guess, what you eat also has a massive influence on your microbiome 16; some foods — like healthy fats and fiber — are great for your microbiome health and other foods, like processed sugars, raw cruciferous vegetables and lectins can irritate the gut and either cause or exacerbate an existing gut issue. I talk about gut-friendly and gut-harming foods extensively in my book, Happy Gut.

Leaky gut and lectin intolerance

If your lifestyle doesn’t support your gut health, you will develop dysbiosis, which will create the ideal environment for another common gut condition, called leaky gut.

Illustration of Normal vs. Leaky Gut

Leaky gut is characterized by a “hyperpermeability” of the gut wall, which exposes your body to partially digested protein molecules from food and toxins.

Think about it like this: Your gut lining acts like a security guard that determines who can come in and who stays out of your bloodstream. When you have a leaky gut, it’s like that security guard has nodded off and anyone can come and go as they please, including lectins. And while that doesn’t sound like the end of the world at first glance, when lectins and other toxins and molecules from food enter the bloodstream, the immune system does not recognize them so it attacks — and that is what causes the terrible symptoms like gut pain, nausea, and bloating. 

The trickiest part is that you may not even be aware of these sensitivities. Food sensitivities don’t always manifest as digestive distress; in fact, they can cause seemingly unrelated body symptoms, such as hives, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, and migraines without any abdominal pain, bloating, or bowel movement problems, and only eventually become the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s my belief that lectins often get the blame for problems that really should be blamed on leaky gut. A healthy gut, which includes a healthy balance of gut flora and a strong gut wall, can handle lectin-containing foods better and prevent this immune system attack.

If your lifestyle doesn’t support your gut health, you will develop dysbiosis, which will create the ideal environment for another common gut condition, called leaky gut. Leaky gut is characterized by a “hyperpermeability” of the gut wall, which exposes your body to partially digested protein molecules from food and toxins. Think about it like this: Your gut lining acts like a security guard that determines who can come in and who stays out of your bloodstream. When you have a leaky gut, it’s like that security guard has nodded off and anyone can come and go as they please, including lectins. And while that doesn’t sound like the end of the world at first glance, when lectins and other toxins and molecules from food enter the bloodstream, the immune system does not recognize them so it attacks — and that is what causes the terrible symptoms like gut pain, nausea, and bloating. 

The trickiest part is that you may not even be aware of these sensitivities. Food sensitivities don’t always manifest as digestive distress; in fact, they can cause seemingly unrelated body symptoms, such as hives, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, and migraines without any abdominal pain, bloating, or bowel movement problems, and only eventually become the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disease.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s my belief that lectins often get the blame for problems that really should be blamed on leaky gut. A healthy gut, which includes a healthy balance of gut flora and a strong gut wall, can handle lectin-containing foods better and prevent this immune system attack.

Revealing the true problem with lectins

As a doctor who specializes in gut health, I’ve observed that if you have a healthy gut with balanced gut flora, the amount of lectins that could create issues is far higher than what most people would eat. That’s because a healthy gut lining produces digestive enzymes that break down lectins and lectins are not allowed to slip through into the blood stream. 19

In other words, while lectins get associated with autoimmune disease and gut imbalances. It’s the other way around!
I’ve found that gut imbalances are often the problem, not just lectins.

As we learned last week, some lectins damage the gut more than others. Kidney bean lectins, for instance, can especially damage the cells within your gut wall, cause bacterial overgrowth, and create nutritional deficiencies. 21 Meanwhile, in people with a healthy gut, some lectin-containing foods such as tomatoes and other fruits are healthy. 18 Clearly, classifying all lectins as “harmful” oversimplifies this broad group of foods.

To be fair, lectins do create problems for patients who have dysbiosis. For these people, lectins can:

  • Interfere with nutrient digestion and absorption
  • Adversely impact the immune system within your digestive tract 22
  • Affect the health of cells in the gut and its ability to heal itself

These issues should not be ignored or underestimated. Let’s say you eat legumes, for example. The lectins in those legumes will resist being broken down in your gut, because they can withstand the acidic environment of your stomach. 23 They end up binding to cells within the gut wall lining.24 If you eat large amounts of them, they can irritate the gut wall, creating symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, and exacerbating leaky gut, which allows them to slip through the gut all and enter your bloodstream. This sets off the inflammatory response that has a domino effect, resulting in a host of problems. Basically, when you are internally inflamed, more of the calories that you eat are stored as fat and weight gain happens right before your eyes. In addition, an irritated and inflamed gut lining may also interfere with the absorption of other important nutrients. 25

Over time, as lectins get through the gut wall, they can bind to all sorts of tissues in your body, including brain, thyroid, liver, and pancreas, even possibly leading to autoimmune disease. This is the fuel to the fire of autoimmunity. Inflammation leads to a wide range of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. 26 I call this phenomenon the lectin-autoimmune connection. But as you can see, this is a complex and multifaceted issue. Blaming lectins and lectins alone for all these problems dramatically oversimplifies the issue at hand.

In my practice I find that my patients with lectin intolerance typically start out with a damaged gut.

And while eating lectins may have worsened their condition once the gut became damaged, those lectins alone didn’t actually create the damage in the first place.

Healing lectin intolerance by healing the gut

When lectins attach to the gut lining, they can contribute to leaky gut. 20 That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you fix your leaky gut and rebalance your gut microbiome, you can better tolerate lectin-containing foods (especially when prepared the right way), many of which can be considered a healthy part of a balanced diet. 

So how do you fix leaky gut and rebalance the gut microbiome? You’ll be surprised, the remedy is not all about what you eat, but also about how you live.

7 Steps To Heal Your Leaky Gut

…So You Can Enjoy Lectin-Containing Foods Again

Refined Sugar

Cut down on processed and refined sugar

Eating too much sugar can set you up for dysbiosis by allowing sugar-eating gut bacteria and yeast to grow out of control. This can crowd out beneficial bacteria — the kind you need to make sure lectins aren’t causing uncomfortable symptoms. If you’re craving sugar, try opting for dark chocolate, herbal tea, or a piece of fruit instead.

Move your body every day

There’s an established link between the gut microbiome and physical fitness. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a six-pack or run a marathon to have a healthy gut. Instead, focus on moving your body every single day in some way, which could mean anything from dancing to tennis to a 15-minute jog.

Move your body every day
Make Sleep a Priority

Make sleep a priority

This might come as a surprise, but your gut bacteria are also affected by your sleep schedule. The best way to get better sleep is by establishing a nighttime routine. This doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, it could be as simple as putting your phone away an hour before bed, having a cup of chamomile tea, dimming the lights and reading your favorite novel.

Find a stress management tool that works for you

Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, stretching, and journaling are all science-backed tools that help you cope with life’s many challenges and the daily ups and downs. And while you might expect it at first glance, psychological stress is a major risk factor for dysbiosis.

Find a stress management tool that works for you
Only take medications when you actually need them

Only take medications when you actually need them

There’s a time and place for prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications but unfortunately, especially in America, we often overuse these drugs and it sets us up for dysbiosis AND leaky gut. If you want to prioritize your gut health, make sure you’re only taking medications like antibiotics, steroids, and over-the-counter pain relievers if you really need them. Even seemingly benign OTC drugs like Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen can lead to leaky gut and dysbiosis when overused. And if you do, try to only take them for a short period of time.

Opt for healthier household products

By switching to green cleaning products, cosmetics, and beauty products, you can decrease the number and amount of chemicals your gut has to process each day. This will help protect the diversity of your gut microbiome and heal your gut.

Opt for healthier household products
ollow a lectin-limited diet COMBINED WITH a gut-healing program

Follow a lectin-limited diet COMBINED WITH a gut-healing program

To truly heal the root cause of the problem, you not only need to take away the offender (i.e. lectins), but you also have to heal the gut lining. The best way to do this is in an integrated gut-healing program with an elimination diet that not only cuts out most high-lectin foods, but also eliminates dairy, gluten, corn, sugar, alcohol, and coffee. This is what the Happy Gut Reboot: 28-Day Cleanse is all about.

As you can see, there are a ton of steps you can take to heal the gut and reverse a lectin intolerance before you think you have been sentenced to a lectin-free diet for the rest of your life. I mean, in all honesty can anyone do that? 

The truth is to simply cut lectins out of your diet for good is missing a big part of the whole picture. They say you can’t see the frame if you’re in the picture. Well, in this case, gut health is the framework for enjoying the bounty of delicious, lectin-rich foods in the ideal picture of summer. At the end of the day, if you don’t turn your attention towards healing the gut, you are missing the root cause of many health problems, including lectin intolerance. And that’s why I called this series The Lectin Paradox.  

The Lectin Paradox - Part 1 of 3

The Lectin Paradox (Part 1/3)

Myth #1: All Lectin-Containing Foods are Bad for You.

We’re smack in the middle of summer and you know what that means —  the farmer’s markets are overflowing with fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables. The month of August reminds us of all the incredible nourishment the earth can provide. It really is a beautiful site to see! 

Unfortunately, many of those famously vibrant and delicious summer vegetables contain lectins, which have gotten a bad rap over the last few years.

What are lectins — and are they all bad?

Lectins are a family of proteins that are known for seeking out sugars in the body and attaching to the surface of cells. They are found in most plants but they don’t actually have any nutritional value for humans. Instead, they exist to help protect plants from not only viruses, bacteria, and fungi but also herbivorous invertebrates (worms) and vertebrates (insects) that threaten to kill them as they grow. 10

Some common lectin-containing foods include beans, peanuts, lentils, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, fruits, and grains such as wheat.1

As innocuous as they might sound, lectins have become a huge source of controversy in some circles. “For as long as people have speculated dietary lectins are harmful, others have conjectured that they may be protective,” says Michael Greger, M.D. 2

And anyone who has read Dr. Gundry’s book, The Plant Paradox, may believe that lectins are the worst thing on the planet for you. In my book, Happy Gut, I included a section on the emerging research showing the negative health consequences of consuming lectins, which are often blamed for causing gut health issues and weight loss resistance. Quickly, the word “lectin” became a bad one. As a result, many of us reluctantly removed them from our plates. 

As time went on, I had a gut feeling this wasn’t the whole story on lectins. After all, in places like Sardinia, Italy, where people live well into their 100s, lectins are a major part of the standard diet. How could they be bad for you, if they have such a rich history in worldwide cultures that enjoy longevity?

Now, a few years later, I have a new perspective on lectins that I want to share with all of you. You’ll be happy to know that with my approach to lectins, total lectin avoidance isn’t the only solution to your gut health and weight maintenance woes.

Is there a more balanced perspective on lectins?

As more lectin facts and figures presented themselves, I realized a few things. First, the blanket statement that “all lectins are bad” is a myth. This is true for many reasons, but first and foremost, it’s because believing that all lectins are “bad” assumes that all lectins are the same, which, of course, they aren’t. 

The truth is that lectins are found in most plant foods, but only about one-third of those foods contain a significant amount. 3 And as you can see in the table below, even foods that are known for being lectin-containing may not be as bad as you think. Here’s my list of high, moderate, and low-lectin foods.

Lectin-Offending Foods (Worst to Best)

Lectin-Offending Foods (Worst to Best) - Chart

As you can see, some lectin-containing foods create more of a problem than others, depending on the amount of lectin in the specific food and even the way the food is prepared before you eat it. In general, cooking foods decreases the lectin content and makes them easier on your body. 

It’s also important to know that all of the foods above contain different types of lectins.  In fact, there are so many different types of these proteins that they’re organized into several different classes, all with distinct names. For example, leguminosae is the type of lectin found in soybeans and p>gramineaep is the lectin found in wheat germ. 

And while all lectins are part of the same family of proteins, they can have very different side effects in the body. For example, the lectin in red kidney beans, called phytohaemagglutinin, can cause red blood cells to clump together 14 and create red kidney bean poisoning. Eating just four raw kidney beans could create severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and severe abdominal pain. 15 On the contrary, eating some of the other foods on the list above may cause only mild symptoms — or no symptoms at all. 

As you can see, not all lectin-containing foods have the same amount of lectins, and not all lectins are created equal. We do ourselves a major disservice when we lump them all together. 

It’s possible that the lectin solution doesn’t have to involve eliminating lectins altogether, which to me just doesn’t seem like a sustainable or enjoyable, long-term solution; instead, determine whether there’s a lectin threshold that as long as we stay below, we won’t experience significant issues. But there’s more to consider…

Do lectins have health benefits?

Most of the research on lectins has been done on animals, which means we shouldn’t assume the results will also be true for humans. This is true both for studies that show that lectins may be damaging to human health but also for those that show a positive health benefit for humans, which some actually do. 

For animals, lectins help regulate immune function and cell growth 5. In humans, lectins can help cells interact with each other and can also help slow down the rate at which cancer cells multiply. 6 They may even be potential treatments for illnesses created by bacteria, fungi, and viruses, due to their anti-bacteria, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties. 7

As antioxidants, lectins can protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. They also slow down how your body breaks down and absorbs carbohydrates, steadying blood sugar levels and preventing high insulin. 8

Lectins themselves don’t contain nutrients, but lectin-containing foods provide nutrients including B vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Large population studies show that some lectin-containing foods can potentially lower rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes while helping you lose weight. 9

Clearly, when evaluating lectins, the whole story is much more complex than what lectin-loathers may be willing to admit. We have to weigh the potential risks with the potential benefits.

What are the real risks associated with lectins?

Speaking of risks, the hype over lectins is not totally ungrounded, because lectins do have a dark side. Consuming lectins can cause symptoms that range from mild bloating and gas to nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, and diarrhea. I think we can all agree that these are side effects we’d all like to avoid. The thing is they mostly happen when high-lectin foods are consumed raw.

Lectins are actually considered anti-nutrients because they block the absorption of other important nutrients. 11  For example, animal and cell studies show that active lectins can interfere with how your body absorbs minerals, especially calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.12

Lectins can impact the gut microbiota, but they also impact inflammation and immune function. 27 Some lectins can be resistant enough to digestion to enter the circulation and create widespread havoc. 28 Lectins have an affinity to all types of tissues in the body, including the ability to bind to cells in the thyroid, liver, pancreas, kidneys, prostate, breasts, eyes, and brain.

Among their other problems, lectins can:

  • Disrupt metabolism
  • Promote enlargement or damage to key internal organs and tissues 
  • Adversely impact hormones
  • Compromise your immune health 29
  • Contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s disease 30

The list goes on and on, but one important lectin side-effect to pay close attention to is their effect on the immune system and more specifically, in relation to autoimmunity, which is when your immune system starts attacking your body’s own tissues.

Is there a lectin-autoimmune connection?

Lectins are very sticky molecules; once you absorb them, they can bind to many tissues, including the thyroid, pancreas, and even collagen in our joints, as stated before. There, they attract white blood cells to these tissues, potentially leading to an autoimmune response. 31

The research has not yet been conclusive as to lectins’ role in promoting autoimmune disease. However, research from the 1990’s noted that wheat gliadin, a “lectin-like” substance, binds to the inner lining of the digestive tract and by doing so, may contribute to celiac disease — an autoimmune intolerance of gluten.

Lectins can also mess with fat-regulating hormones, like insulin. Lectins block insulin receptors so they cannot receive signals, which leads to insulin resistance. This causes your body to require more insulin to balance the same amount of sugar in the blood and leads to fat deposits around the middle, weight gain, obesity, and eventually Type 2 diabetes. 

Lectins & Appetite Control

Lectins can also create leptin resistance. Leptin is a very important hormone that regulates feelings of fullness. Under normal circumstances, the more leptin in circulation, the less hungry you should be. 

However, the brains of people who are obese do not respond to the leptin signal. Their levels are high, but these levels are not sensed by their brain to signal that they are full and they should stop eating.

Leptin resistance makes you still feel hungry even when you’ve already had all the food you need.

Lectins can also contribute to inflammatory diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease. Lectin-containing foods may actually be at the root of chronic pain syndromes that many people suffer from. One study found that plant lectins can act as a “danger signal” that activates inflammation and potentially promotes these inflammatory diseases. 32

Clearly critics have a strong argument that lectins play a role in issues, like obesity, chronic inflammation, and autoimmune diseases. But like I mentioned before, we have very little human research on the ideal amount of lectins humans should eat and the long-term impact of lectins. 33

Now that we know that not all lectins are created equal, and that they have both positive and negative health consequences, let’s explore why everyone doesn’t react the same to lectins.

Why does everyone react so differently to lectins?

Clearly, lectins may have some drawbacks, but that still doesn’t help you on your quest towards figuring out what you should eat and not eat. Do we all need to cut lectins out of our diet, even if we don’t have symptoms? Why do some people eat lectins without an issue, while others can’t tolerate them at all? 

After years of diving into the research on lectins, I think we’ve been giving lectins an unfair amount of blame for the symptoms we experience after eating them. Lectins may just be a red herring — the easy scapegoat — for the true missed problem that is lurking inside you.  

So what’s the indolent problem hiding behind lectins? An UNHAPPY GUT. The gut may actually be the missing link as to why lectins are more troublesome for some and not others. Because the health of your gut plays a BIG ROLE in how damaging lectins can be. In other words, all of the leptin problems can occur even more so when you have an unhealthy gut. We’ll dive deeper into this in Myth #2 — Everyone has a lectin issue: The Lectin Paradox. 

Should YOU be eating lectins?

You probably already have a hunch as to whether lectins are an issue for you. If you’re still not sure, you can take the following steps to test your lectin tolerance or reduce your lectin intake. None of these require you to eliminate lectins from your diet completely or for good so you can still enjoy some of the delicious, lectin-containing foods during August.

How to Test Your Lectin Tolerance

1. Stick to Low-Lectin Foods:

Eat lectin-containing foods but only the ones that are in the low or medium columns in the table above.

2. Use Traditional Food Preparation Techniques:

Eat lectin-containing foods but make sure you’re using traditional food preparation techniques like fermenting, sprouting, rinsing, and soaking to decrease the lectin-content of high-lectin foods. (I’ll write more about this in my upcoming blog posts.)

3. Follow a Lectin Elimination Diet:

If you eliminate lectins and your symptoms disappear, and then return when you add lectins back in, that’s a really clear sign you’ve got a lectin issue, but there may be more to the story. [Hint, hint: Lectins aren’t the ONLY problem.  We’ll get to that in the next blog.] I will say that most people who do the Happy Gut 28-Day Cleanse — which is a lectin-limited diet — feel less bloated, have more energy, and even drop unwanted pounds in just 28 days.

At the end of the day, the lectin issue is much more complicated than a simple “all lectins are bad” statement. Because lectin tolerance depends on so many factors, there is a time and place to eliminate lectins completely. However, to permanently cut out lectin-containing foods — many of which are delicious and full of beneficial nutrients —  doesn’t always have to be the only solution.

Assortment of yellow heirloom tomatoes in a cardboard crate

In next week’s blog, I’ll do a deep dive into the complicated relationship between lectin intolerance and gut health issues. In the meantime, as someone with a “happy gut,” I’m happy to say I’m going to continue enjoying organic yellow heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market in season as well as properly-prepared Cuban black beans, because they are simply — DELICIOUS! [And I might be biased, because I’m Cuban. :-)]  Enjoy!