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When considering adding plant-based proteins like beans, quinoa, and chia seeds to your diet, you may have questions about their high lectin levels. While plant-based or vegan diets have many benefits, they are also high in anti-nutrients called lectins. These lectins have some health benefits but can also create health problems by messing with gut health and the immune response for some people. 

What Are Lectins?

Lectins are a type of protein found in many plant and animal foods. They bind to carbohydrates in the body, supporting a variety of biological functions.   

In plants, lectins are a natural defense mechanism against pests and pathogens. They can deter herbivores and insects by causing digestive discomfort or other adverse effects when consumed. In plants and animals, these compounds help cells stick together and interact with each other, which is essential for processes like immune response and cellular communication.   

The binding ability of lectins has both pros and cons. While lectins support specific processes in the body through binding, they can also bind to nutrients and tissues, leading to deficiencies, damage, and dysregulation.   

The problem comes when dietary lectins are consumed in larger quantities or without proper preparation. Then the lectins can bind with sugar molecules that make up tissues in the human body, including those in the gut lining.   

Dr. Steven Gundry is a world-renowned cardiologist who authored a book on this very subject, The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. Dr. Gundry is known for discouraging eating high-lectin foods because of their possible contribution to inflammation and a variety of chronic diseases. 

Types of Lectins

Unfortunately, a healthy, whole foods diet is often rich in dietary lectins. Types of lectins in plant-based foods include:  

  • Wheat Germ Agglutinin (found in wheat and other cereal grains) 
  • Soybean Agglutinin (found in soy) 
  • Phytohaemagglutinins (found in legumes, especially red kidney beans) 
  • Peanut lectin 
  • Tomato lectin 
  • Potato lectin 
  • Ricin (found in castor beans) 
  • Vicilin (found in fava beans) 

These compounds are highly resistant to the body’s natural digestive enzymes and can easily bypass the effects of stomach acid, reaching the intestines in whole form. There, they can compromise the gut barrier and enter the bloodstream.  

Foods High in Lectins

Lectins are in a wide variety of plant foods. Lectin-rich foods include legumes (like beans, lentils, and peanuts), whole grains and grain-like seeds (wheat and quinoa), nightshade vegetables and fruits (like tomatoes, bell peppers, and potatoes), and fruits (like bananas).

Lectins are also present in certain animal products, like milk from modern breeds of cows. Milk from cows that have been fed grain-based diets may contain higher levels of lectins. Egg whites contain a lectin called avidin, which binds to biotin (a B vitamin) and can inhibit its absorption.

However, fermenting dairy products (yogurt or kefir) can reduce lectin content and improve digestibility. Cooking eggs can denature avidin, reducing its ability to bind to biotin. In general, these lectins are found in much lower concentrations compared to plant sources.

What Are Some Negative Health Effects of Eating Lectins?

Concerns around plant-based diets, protein, and lectins primarily revolve around potential digestive issues and nutrient absorption. Here are some adverse health effects associated with lectins: 

Toxicity 

Certain foods are so high in lectins that they could cause poisoning. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administratio (FDA), it only takes 4 raw kidney beans to cause severe food poisoning symptoms. 

Digestive Problems 

In some people, lectins can bind to the gut lining and cause irritation, leading to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and symptoms like constipation, bloating, gas, and intestinal discomfort. This is particularly true if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked. Wheat germ agglutinin has been linked to increased intestinal permeability and may contribute to gut disorders. 

Autoimmune Conditions 

Lectins can trigger the immune system or exacerbate inflammation in certain individuals, particularly those with autoimmune diseases. There’s ongoing research into how lectins might affect individuals with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, for example. A lectin-free diet may be necessary, at least for a time, to get those health conditions under control.   

Cardiovascular Disease  

Some research suggests lectins may contribute to heart disease by triggering chronic inflammation and interacting with the immune system. Chronic inflammation is a well-known risk factor for heart disease as it can lead to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries). 

Inflammation caused by lectins can damage the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels, leading to endothelial dysfunction. This condition impairs the ability of blood vessels to dilate and increases the risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis. 

Some lectins have prothrombotic effects, meaning they can promote blood clotting. Excessive blood clotting can lead to thrombosis, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. 

Weight Issues 

Lectins can negatively affect the balance of gut microbiota and disrupt the tight junctions in the intestinal lining, leading to systemic inflammation. An imbalance in gut bacteria (dysbiosis) has been linked to obesity, as certain gut bacteria may increase fat storage and weight gain.  

Chronic inflammation is linked to insulin resistance and metabolic disturbances, which can contribute to weight gain. When the gut is inflamed, it can alter the body’s metabolism and promote fat storage. 

Lectins can also bind to nutrients in the digestive tract, reducing their absorption. Poor nutrient absorption can lead to cravings and overeating as the body tries to obtain the necessary nutrients from food. Limiting lectins in the diet may, therefore, help with weight loss efforts without needing to restrict calories. 

Sensitivity to lectins varies among individuals. Some people may experience adverse effects from lectin, while others may consume lectin-containing foods without any problems. While lectins have potential negative effects, they also have beneficial properties, such as antioxidant and anti-cancer activities, in certain contexts.  

Understanding and mitigating their effects through proper food preparation can help balance their risks versus benefits. 

How to Lower Lectin in Foods

Proper food preparation methods can significantly reduce the lectin content in foods, making them safer and more digestible.  

Food Preparation Methods 

Properly preparing, fermenting, sprouting, and cooking foods can reduce the levels of active lectins, making them safer and more digestible. 

  • Peeling and De-Seeding: Some lectins are concentrated in the skin and seeds of certain vegetables and fruits. Peeling and de-seeding tomatoes, cucumbers, and other produce can reduce lectin content.  
  • Soaking: Be sure to soak nuts and seeds before consuming to reduce the lectin content. Soaking beans and grains in water for several hours before cooking can help to reduce their lectin levels. However, soaking alone isn’t enough, which is why we should also cook these foods. 
  • Cooking: Heat can further denature lectins, reducing their negative impact. Boiling beans, grains, and certain vegetables thoroughly can significantly decrease lectins. However, pressure-cooking is the best method for deactivating the most lectins. 
  • Fermentation: Fermentation breaks down lectins and other antinutrients, making the foods more digestible and increasing nutrient availability. Foods like tempeh (fermented soybeans) and sourdough bread (fermented grains) have lower lectin levels. 
  • Sprouting: Sprouting involves soaking seeds, grains, or legumes until they begin to germinate. This process reduces lectin content and increases nutrient availability. Sprouted grains and legumes can be used in salads, soups, and other dishes. 

It may be worth adding some supplements to offset whatever lectins remain after proper food preparation.  

Supplement Support 

Supplements like chitosan, glucosamine, and chondroitin may reduce the harmful effects of lectins. Bladderwrack (a seaweed), okra, kiwi, and D-Mannose from cranberries and blueberries may also help, according to research.  

  • Chitosan: Chitosan is a natural polysaccharide derived from chitin found in the shells of crustaceans like shrimp and crabs. It has a strong affinity for binding to lectins, neutralizing their activity.
  • Glucosamine: N-acetyl D-glucosamine (NAG) is an amino sugar derived from glucose that’s also sourced from crustacean shells. It, too, can bind to lectins in wheat and cancel out some of their effects on the body. As a side benefit, NAG also helps maintain the integrity of the gut lining.  
  • Chondroitin: Chondroitin sulfate is often paired with glucosamine in joint-supporting supplements. While its primary function is to support joint health, chondroitin can also bind to lectins. By providing structural components needed for the repair and maintenance of the gut lining, chondroitin sulfate can help reduce the damage caused by lectins. 
  • D-Mannose: D-mannose is a sugar naturally found in cranberries and blueberries. While known for its positive effects on urinary tract infections, D-mannose may also help bind lectins from legumes in the gut.  

Adding kiwi, okra, and cranberries (if not allergic) to higher lectin meals may also help bind them and prevent certain adverse effects.  

Low Lectin, High Protein Plant Foods

Here are some protein-rich plant foods that are low in lectins:  

  • Hemp seeds 
  • Sorghum 
  • Millet 
  • Spirulina 
  • Flaxseed 
  • Water lentil (also known as duckweed and Lentein) powder 
  • Low lectin protein powders include hemp protein or hydrolyzed or protein isolates of pea, lentil, or chickpea 

Those are some ideas to help you add more plant-based proteins to your diet without maxing out the lectins. Of course, if you’re not allergic, you can still include high-lectin foods like beans and tomatoes if you pressure-cook them. 

The Wellness Way is Here to Help!

Finding out your food tolerances and protein needs is just a small part of health restoration. It’s also important to determine which traumas, toxins, and thoughts are contributing to health issues and to start addressing them with chiropractic adjustments, detox protocols, and feelings of hope. Get tested, start a personalized nutrition program, and restore your health and energy. Contact a Wellness Way Clinic today! 

References: 

  1. Lectin Activity in Commonly Consumed Plant-Based Foods: Calling for Method Harmonization and Risk Assessment – PMC (nih.gov) 
  2. Cell-to-cell binding induced by different lectins – PubMed (nih.gov) 
  3. Bad Bug Book (fda.gov) 
  4. Comparative study on nutrient composition, phytochemical, and functional characteristics of raw, germinated, and fermented Moringa oleifera seed flour – PMC (nih.gov) 

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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