Lectins and Your Health: Everything you need to know

Health & Wellness
Sep 17, 2008
Health & Wellness

Heard about lectins, lectin-free diets and want to know what all the fuss is about?

Lectins are a naturally occurring protein found in foods that are likely to have in your fridge or pantry. These include members of the bean family (legumes), many ancient grains and some vegetables.

Some people seem to have trouble digesting lectins, and this can cause problems in your GI tract - which can lead to bloating and inflammation in this area. This has led to lectin-free diets which eliminate high lectin foods like grains, quinoa, beans and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.

Should you worry about lectins, and are you lectin intolerant? Let’s find out.

What Exactly are Lectins?

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins that are found in most plants, particularly seeds and tubers such as cereal crops, potatoes and beans (legumes). Lectins may be inflammatory if they are not cooked properly or if they are eaten in high quantities.

What Foods Contain Lectins?

Lectins are found in foods, and the amount of lectins contained in the food depends on the type of plant, how it was processed, and the species. The main foods that may contain toxic lectins include:

  • grains such as wheat and wheat germ but also quinoa, rice, oats, buckwheat, rye, barley, millet, and corn
  • legumes
  • dairy foods
  • the nightshade family e.g. potato, tomato, eggplant, cucumber and capsicum

What are lectins?

It is important to note that soaking legumes overnight and rinsing them well does seem to remove or inactivate many of the lectins present. Heating may remove lectins in some foods, but not all.

What Damage Can Lectins Cause?

Lectins are proteins that do not break down easily, and they are resistant to both stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Lectins may bind to the wall of the gut and could damage the gut lining. Because of the damage that lectins could do to the gut, other proteins may be able to cross into the body undigested and cause allergic reactions within the body.

It is important to note that the majority of studies have been done with isolated lectins, and not with actual foods we consume, so there is limited research on this subject.

The Good Side of Lectins

The news is not all bad when it comes to lectins.

There have been studies that show that lectins are able to make abnormal and malignant cells stick together, as well as stop them from functioning. This has important overtones when it comes to types of cancer. Soy protein in low concentration has this effect on cancer cells, while leaving normal cells alone in blood types A and AB. Peanut lectins are shown to fight breast cancer cells in blood types A and AB.

Peanut lectins inhibit cancer cell growth and destroy cancer cells in blood types A and AB. Soy bean lectins makes cancer cells stick together and also destroys them in blood types A and AB. Fava bean lectins promote cell differentiation in all blood types. Amaranth lectins inhibit cancer growth in blood types A and AB. Domestic mushrooms promote cell differentiation in all blood types and jackfruit lectins stick together T antigens in all blood types.

Should I Follow a Lectin-free Diet?

Like any diet you are thinking of following you need to know the pros, cons and potentially harmful side effects before you start it. Elimination diets can expose you to nutritional deficiencies. The current scientific evidence is that lectin-rich foods such as legumes, vegetables and grains are important for a balanced diet.

Lectin-free diet

If you are unsure about any diet or food intolerance you may have best to consult a qualified dietitian or nutritionist for an informed opinion.

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