Lectins. You may have heard of them, and you may have not. Most people only hear about them when they are suddenly told to avoid them by a healthcare practitioner because they may cause inflammation or make an inflammatory condition worse. Many avoid them due to gastrointestinal distress, as they have been known to cause those symptoms. However, what are lectins? Why are they in our food? Are they as damaging as many people believe? More and more information is surfacing about lectins, and this will change the way you look at your food.
When someone is told to go on a lectin free diet, they are often encouraged to avoid the nightshade fruit and vegetable family, soybeans, kidney beans, peanuts and many grains. However, the list should not end there because virtually all plant foods contain lectins. Lectins are proteins that bind carbohydrates and are present in all organisms. Animals have them, humans have them and, of course, plants have them too. In animals and humans, they facilitate cell to cell contact. In plants, they are thought to protect them from pathogens and insects, but their entire function is not clear. There are many different types of lectins with many different functions, which also means that each one will behave differently in the body when consumed. Not all lectins cause inflammation, and not all lectins cause gastrointestinal distress. Many have this potential, but it is greatly reduced when the food is properly prepared. The lectins found in red kidney beans, for example, can be so harmful when undercooked that they can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal damage. However, soaking the beans for many hours and then cooking them thoroughly, renders the lectins completely harmless. Unfortunately, the reputation of the red kidney bean has made many afraid of the damage of lectins.
As seen in the above example, proper food preparation is essential to deactivate lectins. Soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking are different methods that help to disable and reduce lectins, as well as other antinutrient content in foods like phytic and oxalic acids, that make absorbing plant nutrients difficult for the body. Food preparation is also one of the beautiful things that set us apart as humans. We take time to prepare, cook and thoroughly enjoy food. However, in our modern world, this is rarely happening. We are always on the go and food is quickly consumed to keep us going. We may not know the practices being used to make the food we regularly eat and this is where antinutrients like lectins, oxalic and phytic acids can become damaging. Were the grains in your cereal sprouted before becoming flour? Was your bread fermented before it was baked to make it easier to digest? There are cereals and bread on the market that are taking these extra steps to make them more digestible. Reading labels and doing research on different brands helps you get to know the food you are putting in your mouth daily. Were your canned beans soaked before they were cooked and canned? Soaking and cooking your own beans may take some extra steps but it is the easiest food prep to do. Make a large batch and freeze them for later use. Were the nuts and seeds in your trail mix soaked before they were roasted to reduce their lectin content as well as phytic and oxalic acid content? Set nuts or seeds in water to soak during the day then dry them out in the oven overnight at the lowest temperature. This makes the nuts and seeds deliciously crunchy and maintains their nutrients while significantly reducing the compounds that make them hard to digest, unlike the typical roasting process.
While proper food preparation reduces many lectins in foods, there are still some conditions that benefit from avoiding the primary lectin culprits. Rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, IBD, colon cancer, and bacterial infections are conditions in which one should avoid high lectin foods. These conditions take lectin proteins and convert them into substances that can cause further damage. If you are not dealing with a specific health condition, the nutrients available in all whole foods outweighs their lectin content. For example, the lycopene content of a tomato is found in the skin and seeds, so are their lectins. Lycopene is an antioxidant that helps to protect and nourish the skin and is extremely beneficial for prostate issues. Lectin-containing foods are also the highest fibre foods. As avoiding foods that contain lectins is virtually impossible, the key here is to reduce your lectin intake by preparing beans and grains properly and to also include more cooked and fermented vegetables in the diet over raw ones. Too many lectins in the diet from poor food preparation or too many raw vegetables can lead to bloating, fatigue, diarrhea, gas, discomfort and joint pain. If you have been experiencing these feelings, you may want to start looking at the way you have been preparing your food and adjust your diet. If you do not have the time to prepare the foods yourself, then research brands and bakeries to get different prepared goods from, or this may be a case where you need to avoid the high lectin grains and beans altogether.
Each body is different and will react differently to certain foods than others. Some people can eat a completely raw diet and thrive while others have digestion issues with just a few raw vegetables a day. Learn from your body’s signals because our bodies are trying to tell us how it feels on certain foods all the time. Eat for your health and not just for your taste buds to feel better, move better and live better! We have only one body in this life. Let’s take the time to feed it right.