Beans are part of a healthy diet, right? Aren’t they are a healthy source of protein and carbohydrates?
Enter the debate on lectins…
We may not think of ourselves as “predators” to plants, but plants do! And they’ve developed a mighty weapon to thwart our appetite for them: lectins. Basically, lectins are anti-nutrients that can cause humans digestive problems and even pain syndromes and autoimmune conditions. Lectins are also the plants’ way of defending themselves against pathogens and parasites. Fortunately, lectins can be neutralized or avoided, and I’ll let you know how to do that here. However, some, especially those with autoimmune conditions should be cautious.
Which Foods Contain Lectins?
All foods – even animal foods – contain lectins, but they’re highest and most problematic in grains (especially wheat), legumes (especially soy), nuts, dairy, nightshades, and GMOs.
Different people have different degrees of sensitivity to them, depending on their digestive health, food preparation habits, and overall wellbeing.
What Exactly Is the Problem?
Lectins are proteins that are “sticky” because they seek out and bind with sugars. Their “stickiness” is what makes them so problematic for us because they attach to the intestinal lining of our digestive tract. When they do that, they disrupt the intestine’s normal cellular life cycle and cellular repair.
Interestingly, lectins are resistant to our body’s digestive enzymes, so they’re able to pass through the digestive tract unscathed!
Lectins also damage the intestinal villi – the brush border lining the intestines – which means that the body is less able to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Nutritional imbalances like mineral deficiencies can lead to pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia.
They can also disrupt the balance of gut flora, leading to gut dysbiosis where harmful bacteria can get out of control.
The biggest issue with lectins is that once they attach to the gut lining and interfere with cellular repair and regeneration, a condition known as “leaky gut” (intestinal permeability) can develop. This means that the gut lining becomes permeable to undigested food particles and toxins. When that happens, those molecules (immune complexes) and toxins leak into the bloodstream and get deposited in joints and tissues where they can cause pain and provoke an autoimmune response.
Not only that, our immune system can begin to produce antibodies to the lectins themselves, and to the tissues where the lectins have bonded. Essentially, the body starts to attack itself, which is how lectins can increase the risk of autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s, colitis, thyroiditis, and arthritis.
There are three main approaches that you can take – in varying degrees – depending on your overall gut health and sensitivity to lectins.
Elimination. Paleo enthusiasts maintain that our digestive system simply isn’t evolved to digest legumes and grains. If you’re highly sensitive to lectins, your best bet is to avoid legumes and grains completely and to go easy on nuts. If you aren’t sure how sensitive you are, try avoiding them for one month to see if your pain and digestive troubles improve.
Proper Preparation. Other people do fine with grains and legumes as long as they’re prepared properly because lectins are neutralized and deactivated when they’re soaked, fermented, sprouted and cooked. These food preparation methods happen to have been everyday routines for our ancestors, who knew how to beat lectins at their own game.
Here are more specifics on how to do that:
Soaking: grains and legumes should be soaked overnight (about 8-10 hours). Then the soaking water should be drained, and there should be another rinse before cooking. (Baking soda added to the soaking water may help the process even more.)
Sprouting: in some grains and legumes, the lectins are contained in the outer coat. When the seeds sprout, the coat is metabolized, which removes the lectins. To sprout, simply soak overnight at room temperature in a glass jar (1/3 beans or grains, 2/3 water). Then drain and let sit at room temperature for an additional day or two until small sprouts (1/4”) form. Be sure to rinse several times per day.
Fermenting: the beneficial bacteria involved in fermentation actually digest and remove the lectins for us. Fermentation is most often used with vegetables (think sauerkraut) and dairy (think yogurt) but grains can be fermented (sourdough is the best example) and so can legumes (especially soy – the most problematic of all legumes – resulting in tempeh and miso). Learn how to ferment grains and legumes here.
Cooking. Cooking legumes and grains after soaking them will remove most of the remaining lectins.
Rotate lectin sources. In addition to preparing foods the right way, it’s helpful to rotate foods and eat a wide variety. This is because there are many different types of lectins, and you’ll avoid overloading on any one type in particular by aiming for variety.
The bottom line is we’re all unique. Some people don’t have trouble with lectins, especially if they have a healthy digestive system and no signs of leaky gut. But if you struggle with any kind of pain, autoimmunity, or digestive trouble, it’s worth exploring whether lectins are part of the problem by following the guidelines I’ve listed here.
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Dr. Joe Tatta, DPT, CCN