Considering all of the uncomfortable side effects of lectins, you might wonder whether avoiding lectins altogether is in fact, the answer to lectin intolerance. But in my mind, this is not necessarily true. In fact, I could go as far as to say this is an unsustainable and even narrow-minded solution. So, this week, I’ll be debunking our third and final lectin myth for August: The myth that a lectin-free diet is the only solution to lectin intolerance.
Why we shouldn’t take an “all or nothing” approach to lectins
Many people think that lectin issues can only be solved by following a very restrictive diet, but the truth is, the research just doesn’t support that conclusion. As the authors of a paper published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology wrote “As a result of their potential for toxicity and their ‘anti-nutritional effects’ it is almost inevitable that lectin exclusion could well become a big food fad.” And just as they predicted, lectin-free diets have become increasingly popular. However, the researchers also write that “Consequently, now is the time to resume research on this ubiquitous family of proteins so that we fully understand their role in health and disease.” (1)
In other words, we need more human studies on lectins before we say that lectins should be completely avoided. Most of the research is relatively old, and most are animal studies, which means the results of those studies will not necessarily apply to humans. (2) Additionally, most animal studies used very large amounts of lectins — much more than you or I would actually eat in some sitting or even one day. And as we learned when we debunked Myth #1 that “all lectins are bad,” the number of lectins matters, as does the type. For example, in most of these studies the animals received lectins from raw legumes, which are the most irritating type of lectins and a type of lectin that I can safely say that humans should never eat.
Some foods high in lectins get a bad reputation, but lectins might not be the problem with these foods. Peanuts are high in lectins. But they also contain aflatoxin, a mold that can potentially be a liver carcinogen in animals and even humans. (3)
Likewise, wheat contains gluten, which the research of Dr. Alessio Fasano shows can contribute to a leaky gut, inflammation, autoimmune disease, and more. But, as many of you know, wheat also contains other problem proteins like gliadins (found in gluten). Research shows that a gluten-free diet can help reduce inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity. (4) In other words, it isn’t just the lectins in wheat that are problematic. And even if you do ingest lectins and other irritating ingredients, if you have a healthy gut, you still might be able to tolerate them.
The best way to do this is an elimination diet that not only cuts out most high-lectin foods as well as a gut-healing protocol like my HAPPY GUT® Digest & Protect Bundle, which contains two supplements for optimal gut healing:
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Why a lectin-elimination diet is smarter than a lectin-free diet
However, the way this cycle plays out can vary greatly from patient to patient, and therefore, you never know exactly how you’ll react to different types of lectins. Some patients, for instance, have trouble with nightshade vegetables, which can be inflammatory for patients with underlying inflammatory disorders, such as arthritis. (11) These vegetables, which include eggplant, produce alkaloids. For most people, they aren’t a problem. But for people with inflammatory conditions, even tiny amounts of nightshades can activate the immune system and increase inflammation and pain in the body.
For these people, instead of eliminating all lectins for good, I often use an elimination diet to determine which lectin-containing foods are creating the real trouble (12) Almost everyone benefits from eliminating other lectin-containing foods including wheat, which contains lectins. Overall, a lectin-free diet does provide some benefits: It might lower gut inflammation, for instance, which could decrease the body-wide inflammation that contributes to most diseases. (13) However, in my opinion, it is just a path to healing the true underlying issue — your imbalanced gut health.
Therefore, I don’t believe that everyone needs to follow a lectin-free diet. A lectin-free diet can feel incredibly restrictive, especially if you’re a vegan or vegetarian. You’ll miss out on all the nutrients that lectin-containing fruits and vegetables provide, including dietary fiber. (14) Dietary fiber feeds your good gut bugs, increasing their number and diversity. A healthier gut wall lowers inflammation, protects against obesity, and so much more. (15)
In addition, as I said before, lectin-containing diets have often been characteristic of the Blue Zones, where people live to 100 years old and above. How do you explain that?
Any health practitioners saying that lectins are the sole culprit of gut problems and that they should be avoided completely are failing. They are also failing to mention the very important fact that how you prepare lectures matters — because there are ways to prepare lectins that make them easier to digest and less harmful for your body.
How to make lectins less harmful to your body
For example, cooking legumes partially neutralizes the lectins. (17) This works because when you cook a plant food, heat breaks down the starch into smaller carbohydrates that are easier to digest. When lectins attach to these smaller carbohydrates, the body can more easily remove them. (18) The same process will occur in other non-heat methods, too.
Here are some of my favorite ways to decrease the lectin content of a food:
Peeling & Deseeding
This comes as a surprise to many, but the part of the plant with the highest lectin content is the seed or peel. That’s why it’s imperative that when you cook lectin-rich foods like eggplant or squash, you take the seeds out and peel them. You can use a knife or a traditional peeler for this; or for some foods, like tomatoes, boiling them for a few minutes can make the skin easy to remove.
It’s time to grab that InstantPot you’ve been meaning to use! Pressure cooking is a great option because it’s fast; for example, you only need to cook beans on high heat in a pressure cooker for about 10 minutes before they are safer to eat. Depending on the specific bean, you can cook them in minutes.
Fermenting is a great way to reduce lectin content for a dual benefit, because beneficial bacteria break down lectins and other irritating components in food, while helping seed your gut with healthy flora. It won’t make the lectin content zero, but it can help keep it under a certain threshold so that you don’t experience symptoms; plus, fermented foods also inoculate your gut with more good bacteria. You can buy fermented foods or learn to do it yourself. If you want to start fermenting foods, check out my friend Summer Bock’s course on fermentation here.