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
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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
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
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
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.
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.
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.