There are many different dietary approaches towards achieving good health. However, no matter what diet you choose to follow, it’s widely accepted that plant-based foods have incredible health benefits across the board. Plant-based foods are filled with essential vitamins and minerals, gut-healthy fiber, and are rich in polyphenols and antioxidants.
At The Whole Journey, we are always open to debunking different diets, healing protocols, and holistic remedies through our clinical experience and evidence-based research. We like to provide both the pros and the cons and talk about how to choose the right diet for you based on your specific bio-individuality and current state of health.
Recently Steven Gundry, a well-known cardiologist and surgeon, has brought to light the science and research behind when plants can become poisonous. In his new book, The Plant Paradox, Dr. Gundry discusses how lectin-containing foods can be pro-inflammatory and influence cell-to-cell interaction. Dr. Gundry’s book highlights how foods with a high lectin content can inhibit and block the absorption and digestion of essential vitamins and minerals.
The Science Behind Lectins:
Lectins are found naturally in grains, legumes, and plants as they act as a shield against pests, insects and many other microorganisms. Lectins are protein molecules, which bind to our cell membranes through carbohydrate or sugar. They can contain anti-nutrients, which are natural compounds that inhibit the natural production of enzymes to help support digestion and absorption. Anti-nutrients are pro-inflammatory and trigger an immune response within the body as well as feed the wrong type of bacteria within the colon.
Research shows that including a high amount of lectins in the diet can create digestive difficulties (including increased intestinal permeability), weight gain, and brain fog.
Lectins can also influence absorption and digestion of crucial vitamins (such as essential energy-producing B vitamins: folic acid, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin) and minerals (magnesium, selenium, and iron).
Top Sources of Lectins:
Foods which we have been consuming for hundreds of years are often fruits and vegetables and have a lower concentration of lectins. To the contrary, grains and legumes have a much higher content of both prolamins and agglutinins (the two classes of lectins) and can influence digestion and gut permeability.
Highest Sources of Lectin:
- Corn (including grain-fed animal products)
- Conventional Dairy such as Casein A1 Milk (Look for grass-fed milk which is from A2-producing cows, making it easier for our body to digest)
- Peanuts (including peanut oil)
Medium Lectin Count:
- Fruits, Beans, Legumes, Grains (gluten-containing grains as well), squash, nightshades (Tomatoes, Bell peppers, Eggplant)
Low Lectin Count:
- Olives, Olive Oil, Leafy Greens, Baked Root Vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots), Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussel Sprouts, and Cauliflower.
Reducing Your Lectin Intake:
The debate is out as to whether or not we should completely eliminate all lectin-containing foods. Perhaps the answer is to minimize our exposure to lectins while supporting and optimizing our digestion.
Traditionally for many years, humans have been naturally reducing lectin content in plant-based foods through removing the hull off of rice, soaking beans before cooking and peeling tomatoes before making tomato sauce. I like this approach so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater so to speak since many of these foods have deep inherent nutrition to them when activated appropriately.
Fermenting reduces the lectin content of foods. Fermenting foods such as organic soy, kefir, and sourdough bread (if you are eating gluten) can also be very valuable for our microbiome as it provides beneficial bacteria while also increasing the activation of digestive enzymes which help break down foods.
Soaking and sprouting greatly deactivates and reduces the lectin concentration in seeds, grains, and nuts. We often recommend removing the outside of the skin, soaking and sprouting nuts, making it much easier on our digestive system (this also increases the bioavailability of the protein). This can be especially helpful if you ever experience bloating or “fullness” after consuming nuts and seeds.
Pressure cookers are great for many reasons, we love making bone broth and quick meals in our pressure cooker or “InstaPot,” (my newest obsession because it pressure cooks in a fraction of the time!), but it is also beneficial to neutralize lectin content in plants, seeds, and grains. You can go an extra step and soak your beans, seeds, and grains before pressure-cooking to further destroy lectin content.
Digestive enzymes can help break down foods, including high lectin-containing foods, which are often much harder to break down and assimilate. Using enzyme support can be useful to increase assimilation and nutrient uptake, especially if you know you are sensitive to lectin-containing foods. These are our favorite enzymes.
Bio-individuality: At The Whole Journey, we are all about bio-individuality, making your diet unique and personalized based on how YOU react and feel with certain foods. Because everyone responds to different foods and lifestyle changes, we do not feel that everyone needs to avoid the consumption of lectins. Often the restriction and avoidance of certain foods can create and add more stress to the body (and the mind, while taking the pleasure out of eating). Not to mention, many of these lectin-containing foods have so many medicinal benefits for the body, which we would not want to avoid long term!
If you are struggling with elevated inflammatory markers, an autoimmune condition, or experiencing chronic pain and digestive troubles, it may be a good idea to think of reducing your lectin consumption. We recommend trying this for a trial period of 21 days.
Often when our digestion is compromised, or we have intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), we may be reacting to many different foods. Through removing certain foods for a period of time, we can allow our system to rest and “reboot”. After a period of 21 days, try adding in some medium-lectin foods and see how your body responds.
As Michael Pollan once said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Instead of looking at these lectin-containing foods as something to avoid or remove in the long term, see this as a tool to allow your body to find a balance so that it may heal itself.
We really enjoyed the book, The Plant Paradox. I recommend reading it if you think you may be having trouble digesting and breaking down these plant proteins.
We are eager to see further research and literature published on the topic in the years to come.