For a while it has seemed gluten free, or at the very least wheat free, has been all the rage. I’m not complaining, as a diagnosed Coeliac I quite enjoy the explosion of options on offer to me. If it weren’t for the gluten free trend, I’d still be eating cardboard for bread.
But now a new boogey monster has been brought out of hiding – Lectins. The question is, are they really as scary as they are being portrayed? Let’s dive in!
Right, first things first, what are Lectins?
Lectins are a type of protein found in many different foods. They are of most significance in beans, lentils, grains, and the deadly nightshade family.
For example, you will find them in many plant based proteins such as;
- Kidney beans
- Soy beans
So why might they be bad for us?
Be mindful here that we do not know a heap about how lectins work. It is believed that they are not able to be digested by the human body. So they are left to roam through the digestive tract unchanged.
Some lectins may attach themselves to the cells on the lining of our gut wall. By doing this they are able to talk to these cells. This triggers a response.
It may be that if you have too many lectins doing this, the response is irritation of the gut wall, causing diarrhea, vomiting, and a reduced ability to absorb nutrients from the food we are eating. Some wellness gurus also believe that they are a major source of inflammation in the body.
A claim which has not been consistently backed up by research.
What does the science say?
Here is the catch. Lectins in small quantities might actually be good for us!
They have been used in trials as support for cancer patients due to their ability to fight cancer cells. Lectin may also help control blood sugar levels, and work as an antioxidant.
It is important to realise that the role lectins play is very different from that of allergens such as gluten. It is hypothesized that lectins are used by plants as a natural defense mechanism to stop animals from eating them. If you look at it this way it is more about toxicity than intolerance.
There are several issues with how people are interpreting lectin toxicity. It is very important to note that the level of lectins needed to induce symptoms is very high. Most lectins bind to carbohydrates, as part of their job in slowing down digestion to even out nutrient absorption. However if you consume more lectins than carbohydrates it is theorised that the remaining lectins bind to cells in the gut wall, causing a host of issues such as letting toxins pass through into the bloodstream increasing inflammation.
The problem is that most of the research done on leptins are in animal models or working directly with cells. These types of studies often don’t translate directly to human populations.
So there are a lot of correlations being made that we simply don’t have the science for. IF you eat a large number of lectins above your carbohydrate intake, these lectins MAY attach to cells in your gut wall, which POTENTIALLY causes inflammation.
Everything is toxic to us in large enough doses. Water can kill if you have enough of it. Moreon from this, we all have different tolerance levels of toxins, dependent on our gender, body size, fat to muscle ratio, metabolism, renal clearance, liver function etc.
This is much the same as how some people get loose bowels, headaches, the gitters, or can’t sleep if they have 2 cups of coffee, whilst other people can have four in a day with no issue.
The question is, how can you make lectins less irritating to your system?
Just like with many other food substances, the way you prepare foods with lectins is very important. Often simply cooking a food will change its lectin content.
For example, red kidney beans have a very high level of lectins when raw, this drops to a safe and tolerable level when they’re cooked. For soybeans, boiling, fermenting, or sprouting them will significantly reduce the lectin level. Similarly cooking and processing flour to make bread eliminates most lectins.
My final word on lectins is…
Many foods with lectins contain high vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant compounds. Eliminating these foods from your diet may lead to deficiency, decrease gut microbiome, and potential long term health consequences such as heart disease, cancer, and neurological conditions.
If you do believe that you are highly sensitive to lectins, it would be important to add supplements to your diet to make up for the nutrients lost from these foods.
Remember however, that there has been precious little evidence showing negative effects in the human body of normal levels of lectin consumption. I would recommended making sure there are no other conditions causing your symptoms.