Eat Empowered

Are Foods High in Lectin Actually Bad For You?

3

Perhaps you’ve come across an eating plan that advises you to consume fewer foods high in lectins. Before you begin eliminating them from your diet, here’s some information on lectins, their impact on your health and the foods that contain the highest amounts.

What Are Lectins?

Lectins are proteins that bind to carb molecules and are found in the majority of plant-based foods. In fact, approximately 30% of our food contains lectins, according to the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. As their primary function, lectins play a role in protecting plants against external pathogens, such as fungi, viruses and other microorganisms.

Is Lectin Bad For You?

There are many different kinds of lectins and, for the most part, they’re pretty harmless. However, certain lectins are considered toxic or anti-nutritional, which means they interfere with the absorption of nutrients. (I know, it sounds like something you do not want in your body!)

Here’s the reason: Active lectins, or lectins in their natural state, can interfere with the digestion process since the body can’t break them down. Therefore, they can mess with the regeneration of cells that protect the lining in the gut which may allow bacteria and toxins to slip through the gut into the bloodstream.

As a result, this gut imbalance can cause gastrointestinal issues (think cramping, bloating, possibly leaky gut syndrome). It may also trigger an immune response, leading to inflammation, which is the process at the root of countless diseases. Furthermore, too many lectins can prevent the body from absorbing essential nutrients such as protein and minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorus and zinc.

Why Trendy Diets Want You to Avoid Lectin

This explains why some trendy eating plans promote a lectin-free diet. Steven Gundry, MD, the author of The Plant Paradox and creator of the Gundry Diet, claims that avoiding foods with lectin can lead to weight loss, overall wellness and the prevention of chronic diseases. And followers of the Paleo Diet say you should cut foods that contain lectins from your diet altogether.

It’s important to note that there is little to no research that backs up the theory that humans shouldn’t eat lectins. A review of the evidence published in the journal Nature states, “In their whole and cooked form, there is currently no strong evidence from human trials to support the claim that lectin-rich foods consistently cause inflammation, intestinal permeability, or nutrient absorption issues in the general population.”

The Good News About Lectin

All we really know for sure is that eating high-lectin foods in excess can cause GI distress, but this is true for many healthy foods and is unique to each person Plus, lectins may have some serious healing properties. Researchers, in fact, are studying how plant lectins may be used in treating digestive system cancers, i.e. colon, liver and stomach.

And here’s more good news: You can greatly reduce the amount of lectins in your meals by simply not eating lectin-rich foods raw. (In most cases, you wouldn’t want the raw version anyway!).

“More importantly, by reducing lectins, you can still continue to eat high-lectin foods which are filled with powerful nutrients that you don’t want to miss out on,” says Nutritious Life founder Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN.

“Remember that almost any food causes sensitivity in some percentage of the population, so you need to weigh the negatives versus the positives when making smart food choices,” says Keri. “Of course, you should eat lectins in moderation if you are particularly sensitive to them.”

Here, we list seven foods that contain the highest amounts of lectins, highlight their health benefits and point out how to prevent any potential negative side effects of lectins.

7 Foods High in Lectin and How to Minimize Their Effect

Legumes

Health Benefits

This low-fat, cholesterol-free, plant-based food provides the body with protein, carbs and fiber. It’s also packed with multiple nutrients, including folate, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium and B vitamins. Antioxidant-rich beans and legumes are shown to improve gut health, reduce inflammation, manage blood sugar levels and help the body fight off disease and aging.

Lectin Alert

Beans and lentils top the list, especially soybeans and raw kidney beans (which contain the lectin phytohemagglutinin). Consuming high amounts can cause nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea in some people. Luckily, most of us don’t eat these foods raw, but it’s worth noting that you should soak raw beans overnight before eating. Also fermenting, sprouting and/or cooking (even pressure cooking) legumes will turn them into a gut-friendly food. And FYI: Canned beans are already low in lectins since they soak in a liquid.

Wheat

Health Benefits

Fiber-rich whole wheat contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and folate. This can help control blood sugar levels, aid in digestion, lower risk of heart disease and keep you regular.

Lectin Alert

Raw wheat (such as some forms of unprocessed wheat germ like muesli) is loaded with lectins, so those with an ultra-sensitive GI tract may want to skip the wheat germ. Whole wheat products ( such as pasta, bread and flour) contain fewer lectins since these foods have already been cooked. One study found that lectin levels were “undetectable” in cooked whole wheat pasta.

Quinoa

Health Benefits

Quinoa is gluten-free and a complete plant protein (meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids the body cannot produce on its own). Though technically a seed, quinoa is classified as a whole grain due to a similar method of preparation and nutrient profile. Quinoa is packed with manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and folate and is linked with a lower risk of heart disease.

Lectin Alert

Quinoa isn’t eaten raw, so any processing (cooking, fermenting, soaking) does the trick in removing or greatly reducing lectins.

Eggplant

Health Benefits

This high-fiber vegetable contains antioxidants, vitamin B6, vitamin C and potassium, making it a heart-healthy food. It’s also rich in antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are essential for maintaining eye health.

Lectin Alert

This nightshade contains the compound glycoalkaloid, which has pro-inflammatory properties in some people that could ultimately aggravate autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. (The Arthritis Foundation says these claims are anecdotal.) Cooking eggplant will reduce its potential inflammatory properties. (Also, keep in mind that eggplant is a high-histamine food and may affect those with allergies.)

Tomatoes

Health Benefits

This juicy red fruit is filled with lycopene, a natural compound linked to a decreased risk of chronic illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes also help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure levels, thanks to containing vitamins B and C, folate and potassium.

Lectin Alert

Tomatoes contain lectins like its sister nightshade vegetable eggplant, yet the science linking to adverse health issues just isn’t there.

Potatoes

Health Benefits

Nutrient-rich, cholesterol-free potatoes contain fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. These nutrients may improve digestion, reduce inflammation and boost heart health.

Lectin Alert

While this other member of the nightshade family has lots of lectins, there’s zero evidence showing a cooked potato causes any unpleasant effects.

Peanuts

Health Benefits

A solid source of protein, peanuts also provide the minerals potassium, phosphorus and magnesium. They also contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol levels. This leads to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

Lectin Alert

Believe it or not, peanuts belong to the legume family. While heat doesn’t appear to minimize the amount of lectins in peanuts, studies indicate the health benefits outweigh any possible side effects.

Lectin-Free Alternatives For Your Diet

Those dealing with chronic gastrointestinal issues after consuming high-lectin foods may want to add lectin-free alternatives into their diet. A few suggestions to avoid an upset stomach include:

  • Opting for cauliflower rice instead of traditional grain rice
  • Switching from peanut butter to almond butter
  • Replacing wheat flour with blanched almond flour, coconut flour or arrowroot flour
  • Swapping eggplant for roasted artichokes

(Image: Shutterstock)

  • Interested in joining our wellness community and becoming a Nutritious Life Master Certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach? Enter your info, get free access now to a sample class, and one of our coaches will get in touch with you!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

3