First, carbs were avoided, then gluten, and now it’s lectins that have been deemed “bad for you.” A form of protein found in plants, some experts are claiming that lectins are what we should be avoiding. Some health practitioners believe we should avoid them entirely, while others claim they are actually beneficial. What should we believe? Are lectins really bad for us, or is this fake news?
As with many things in the nutritional world, lectins are not fully understood. Research, however, indicates that they have a way of disrupting our bodies. As a defense mechanism crafted by Mother Nature, lectins are doing their job, but when consumed to excess, there is strong evidence that they can cause havoc. In other words, it’s possible that lectins are really bad for you if you aren’t careful about how you consume them. Below is everything you need to know about the good, the bad, and the ugly of consuming lectins,
What Exactly are Lectins?
Lectins are a class of proteins, mainly of plant origin, that bind specifically to certain sugars and cause agglutination (clumping together of red blood cells or bacteria) of particular cells. They help protect plants against insects, yeast, bacteria, and anything else that wants to eat them. To insects, lectins taste horrible. “Gluten is just one kind of a set of plant defensive proteins against being eaten called lectins, which are present in all plants,” explains Steve Gundry, MD, author of best selling book The Plant Paradox.
“Lectins bind to certain carbohydrates in the body and perform various signaling roles,” adds Cliff Harvey ND, Dip.Fit, PhD, “In fact, some of them are very good while some lectins from food can result in intestinal damage, inflammation, and in some cases, severe allergies — especially lectins in raw legumes.”
Lectins are good at binding things, especially sugars. Referred to as “super glue” by Dr. Peter D’Adamo, author of The Blood Type Diet, they are found in nearly every type of plant, including the fruits and vegetables we love, and in some animal products at lower levels. Additionally, they are also found in beans, grains, nightshade vegetables, dairy, and eggs.
The human body even produces a type of lectin, where it helps to clot blood and utilize sugar. These naturally-produced lectins play a beneficial role in immune function, body fat regulation, and cellular growth and death.
However, over the long term, they might be a factor in the development of autoimmune issues, arthritis, and many other chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease.
Possible Health Benefits
Researchers believe that lectins may be why certain foods seem to work better for weight loss. For example, beans, which are high in lectins, are quite common in weight loss programs. Despite being high in carbohydrates, beans don’t raise blood sugar as much as expected and help people feel full faster.
Lectins may also help protect us against microbial invaders like Staph, yeast, and E.coli. Some researchers theorize that these proteins may help reduce the cases of food poisoning, as we’ve seen so often in big commercial operations in recent years. Lectins are now also being studied for use in cancer treatments for their ability to modify the expression of immune cells.
In addition, one specific type of lectin, human coagulation factor VIII (FVIII), is also known to aid our clotting factors within the blood. Although a minor player in our ability to clot, they do help.
While lectins offer benefits in some ways, there’s no doubt that they can be a problem for many people. Some experts say that the problem isn’t with the lectin itself, but with the amount we consume in the typical American diet.
Lectin levels in foods are found in high quantities in grains and legumes. Until about 100 years ago, both of these foods were seasonal and limited in the diet. People developed various ways to soften and cook the grains and legumes, making them easier to digest. Sprouting, soaking, fermenting, and other long-cooking methods destroyed many of the lectins, making the nutrients more available and therefore easier to assimilate into the body.
With the advent of modern technology, quick-cooking methods left no need to ferment or sprout grains and legumes. It’s also meant lower prices and more availability. Today, the typical American diet consists of over 50 percent grains and legumes. By contrast, many experts now recommend that two-thirds of our diet should be comprised of fruits and vegetables. As cheap grains and processed foods flooded the market, people started eating more grains and lectin-rich food. In the past, experts recommended a diet high in carbohydrates. However, we now are coming to realize that our bodies are simply not designed to consume as many grains and legumes as most of us are now are eating.
Additionally, the stress in our lives doesn’t help. Stress contributes to insomnia, circadian rhythm disruption, and other issues. Dr. Tim Jackson, DPT, says, “Skin problems, joint pain, water retention, brain fog, and general malaise may be signs of lectin sensitivity,” Jackson adds.
The main type of lectin that causes problems in our digestive system is phytohemagglutinin. It’s found in many legumes, but the highest quantity is found in red kidney beans. This type of lectin is so dangerous that eating just a few raw red kidney beans is enough to cause a person to be sick; it can even be fatal for some.
All lectins can cause gastric distress. They bind onto the wall of the intestine, disrupting normal mucus production and blocking nutrient absorption. Lectins cause inflammation of the gut, which can lead to leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and other gastric problems.
Lectins and Weight Loss
Lectins play a role in body weight, and their elimination may be the key as to why some popular diets work. In The Plant Paradox, Gundry maintains that it’s the elimination of these lectin-containing carbohydrates that allow diets like Atkins, Paleo, and Keto to work. “It’s not the high protein, it’s the absence of injurious plant lectins that result in improvements.”
Lectins also can impact blood sugar because they have the ability to mimic insulin. When the cells of your body need energy, they open up the receptors for insulin and sugar. If the lectin locks on to that receptor, the receptor remains wide open and will continue to absorb sugar until the cell dies.
These lectins that are interacting with our system connect to various illnesses including allergies, inflammation, arthritis, and autoimmune problems.
For people with chronic inflammation issues, autoimmune disorders, and cancer, lectins can accelerate the degradation of the joints and tissues. It may also lead to depression. Dr Jackson notes:
Lectins can contribute to elevated inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-ALPHA, which causes fatigue, predisposes one to autoimmunity, and impacts serotonin and serotonin receptors. If you experience chronic inflammation, e.g., any symptom that sticks around for months or longer, decreasing the lectin content will place less stress on the immune system.
Existing health problems may also cause a lectin sensitivity, leading to a cycle of degrading health. Dr. Jackson cites chronic infections, stress, genetic predisposition, a vegan diet, and sleep deprivation as some possible factors that lead to sensitivity.
“Lectins stink,” adds Dr. J. Philip E., D.C, an early adopter and leader in the area of functional health care and nutrition. “The more your physiology is stressed the greater the impact of lectins can be.”
Lectins perform a valuable service, but one thing is very clear: too many in your diet can have an adverse impact. Like many health issues, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Factors to consider are your diet and lifestyle, your level of stress, your health, and your history of food sensitivity. From a functional medicine point of view, it’s very important to take this information and personalize it for you.
Christina Major is a Holistic Nutritionist, Traditional Naturopath, and Herbalist. She dedicates her life to helping people be healthy and learn about great ways to eat well, have fun exercising, and take charge of their lives. Additionally, Christina helps other health professionals write articles and web copy that helps them find and work with people to become healthy.
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