Lectins in a healthy diet

You probably heard about lectins. Lectins are a type of protein that can bind to cell membranes. Lectins are abundant in legumes and grains, and most commonly found in the part of the seed that becomes the leaves when the plant sprouts. They’re also found in dairy products and certain vegetables.

What you might have not heard is that lectin in plants is a defense mechanism against microorganisms, pests, and insects and any other hungry animal (or human being). The main idea is that if you eat something that makes you sick, you’ll steer clear of it the next time you’re hungry. So, plants are forcing you to ingest harmful lectins, to protect themselves. They have also evolved the way for seeds to remain intact as they passed through animals’ digestive systems, for later dispersal. As such, lectins are resistant to human digestion and they enter the blood unchanged and can cause a lot of issues!

Lectins and digestion

There can be many issues with lectins which can cause painful or uncomfortable physical responses like digestive issues, leaky gut, bloating, gas, diarrhea. This GI distress happens because lectins can damage the intestinal lining.

The inside of the bowel is lined by a single layer of cells that make up the mucosal barrier (the barrier between the inside of the gut and the rest of the body). This barrier is effective at absorbing nutrients, but prevents most large molecules and germs passing from inside the bowel into the bloodstream and potentially causing widespread symptoms. In some circumstances, this barrier can become less effective and “leaky”.

As food passes through the gut, it causes very minor damage to the lining of the GI tract. Normally the cells repair this damage rapidly. Since the purpose of the gut lining is to let the good stuff past and keep the bad stuff contained, it’s important for the cellular repair system to be running at full efficiency.

But lectins can blunt this speedy reconstruction. Our cells can’t regenerate as fast as they need to in order to keep the intestinal lining secure. Thus, our natural gut defenses are compromised after the damage occurs and the gut can become “leaky,” allowing various molecules (including stuff we don’t want) to pass through. We may also not absorb other important things, such as vitamins and minerals, properly.

Effects of Lectins

Whenever you eat a seed, a certain kind of grain or even the skin of a fruit or vegetable, the lectins inside it scout out the sugars in your body and look for the ones they can latch onto most easily. They particularly like to grab hold of sialic acid – a type of sugar found in your brain, gut. This incredible ability to latch onto sugars and bind carbohydrates earns lectins the name sticky proteins.

Additionally, lectins can get in the way of important cells communicating with one another. And when that happens, the body’s response is usually inflammation or some other type of reaction to toxicity, like nausea or diarrhea. Besdes causing digestive issues, the sticky nature of lectins can allow them to grab onto harmful bacteria and viruses which migh make people with lectin sensitivities more susciptable to sickness or infection.

Because we don’t digest lectins, we often produce antibodies to them. Almost everyone has antibodies to some dietary lectins in their body. This means our responses vary. Certain foods can even become intolerable to someone after an immune system change or the gut is injured from another source. The presence of particular lectins can stimulate an immune system response. When lectins affect the gut wall, it may also cause a broader immune system response as the body’s defenses move in to attack the invaders.

Symptoms can include skin rashes, joint pain, and general inflammation. Other chronic disorders may be correlated with leaky gut — for example, researchers have even noted that children with autism have very high rates of leaky gut and similar inflammatory GI tract diseases.

High Lectin Foods

Some of the healthy staples in many type of diets are high in lectins!

  • Nuts and seeds, and especially peanuts
  • Legumes such as Lentils, Beans (Lima Beans, Red Kidney Beans)
  • Grains (wheat, quinoa, wheat germ, rice, oats)
  • Nightshades (unless you peel the skins and deseed them)
  • Soy, Barley
  • Potatoes
  • Split Peas
  • Some dairy

Reducing Lectins

Most of the people do not consume high lectin food such as beans raw, but let’s look into some of the techniques to reduce lectins in our foods.

Sprouting

Sprouting seeds, grains or beans decreases the lectin content. Generally, the longer the duration of sprouting, the more lectins are deactivated. The lectins in some grains and beans are in the seed coat. As it germinates, the coat is metabolized – eliminating lectins.

Soaking and cooking

I usually soak beans and legumes overnight, and change the water often. Drain and rinse again before cooking. Adding sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) to the soaking water can help neutralize the lectins further. This is a common practise of preparing beans and grains and something that is passed on from many generations.

What does all this mean for your diet

  • Start by cleaning-up your diet from high sugar and processed food. Wheat and grains especially. This will allow you to hear the signals the body is sending you.
  • At this point consider if the high in lectin foods you are cosuming may have a negative side-effect to your digestion. Any bloating, gas, pain? Remove the type a type of lectin (for example nuts) for 2-4 weeks and re-evalatue.

Key Takaways

  • Lectins are defence mechanism of plant from predators intendend to cause pain to whomever consumes them.
  • Lectins cause issues to the gut lining of our digestive track and can manifest to various auto-immune disorders
  • As with most things certain people might be more sensitive than others to Lectins, but in general consider reducing the lectin foods in your diets
  • Always properly prepare the legumes, nut by sprouting and/or soaking them.

Further reading

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